Parenting a child with special needs presents unique rewards and challenges. I once heard a mom compare her experience to “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.” With all the twists and turns on the journey, it can be hard to focus on passengers in the back seat: the child’s sibling(s). Sometimes all you catch is a quick glimpse from the rear-view mirror, before your attention is called ahead to the next major bump in the road.
Before I address this topic any further, it is important to acknowledge that most parents of kids with special needs feel exhausted, guilty, and at times, overwhelmed. This article is not meant to induce more of those feelings. After a long day struggling with the needs of one child, the last thing you need is to be wracked with guilt about how it affected their sibling(s). This is hard to avoid, because quite frankly, many days your child with special needs will get more of your time and energy than your other kids. It’s the cold, hard truth; you can’t change this, and your other child likely knows it. The sooner you accept and acknowledge this, the sooner you’re on your way to giving your “backseat kid” what they may need most on those hard days: a listening ear and true understanding.
As a child therapist, I have spent many hours counseling parents that children, like everyone else, most want to be truly seen, heard and understood. In most cases, parents can do a “good enough” job giving this to their children. Hopefully, it is a relief to know that you don’t need to fix all your child’s problems or eliminate their struggles. You don’t need to have all the answers! But you do need to listen to them when it counts – to hear in a way that communicates: “I see you, and all your feelings are okay.”
For children who have a sibling with special needs, parents might be unaware of just how much is going on below the surface, both positive and negative. I recently spoke with a teenage girl who said this about how her brother’s autism affects her:
- “I feel rejected by my family because often my turn never comes.”
- “My sibling’s problems are more important than mine. No matter what I’m feeling some days, it feels like it doesn’t matter in the family.”
- “My brother gets more attention for his interests because he talks about them so much. He doesn’t understand how I have interests that are important too.”
- “I get to feel accepted because autistic people tend to be more accepting of others.”
- “I get to watch him overcome his challenges and grow.”
- “Sometimes people generalize autism as one thing, but it is a spectrum. They don’t get it, and that’s frustrating. Autistic people can be really different from each other.”
- “I learn a lot because my brother knows a lot, and his mind goes so fast.”
- “People can be mean and say rude things. They don’t really understand what people go through because they don’t live with it. It hurts and makes me mad. It’s hard because some things they say are true.”
- “Sometimes it feels like he’s my mom’s favorite. It’s feels so unfair because she treats him differently. He gets more attention for his accomplishments.”
Before you ask your child what it’s like for them, prepare yourself for an honest answer that may be difficult to hear. It can help to take a deep breath; remember that your child’s struggles, no matter how difficult, can be opportunities for growth and learning. Having done this, it’s okay to ask directly about your child’s experience. You could phrase the question like this: “What’s it like for you? You know, living with your sister’s __________ (insert the name of the sibling’s disability)?” Then try to really listen and not talk much yourself. While you may be tempted to respond by saying something like, “I’m sorry … I just do the best I can,” resist. Just focus on hearing and reflecting what your child is saying; if they laugh, laugh with them, if they cry, cry with them, and above all, hear them. You can do this because in your own way, you get it; although you’re in different seats, you’re on this wild ride together.