Help Her Thrive When Her Sibling Has Special Needs

Help Her Thrive When Her Sibling Has Special Needs

Although raising a child who has special needs presents unique challenges for parents, the child’s sisters (and brothers) also face a unique set of challenges—and opportunities.

Whether these siblings thrive depends on their circumstances, their personalities, and a host of other factors. But parents can take action to give their typically developing children the support they need to make the most of their situations.

Girls already feel pressure to live up to many unrealistic standards, but when a sibling with special needs is present, girls may more strongly feel the need to overperform, to be the mythical “perfect child,” and to be extra helpful—all because they don’t want to add another burden to their already overworked parents’ lives. Or girls may act out, engage in risky or disrespectful behavior, or perform poorly in school to get some “special attention” of their own.

Guilt, resentment, confusion, embarrassment, and fear—they can all rear their ugly heads at school, in social situations, and at home. Helping your girl navigate those feelings, often compounded by other age-related issues, is important.

But there’s good news! Having a sibling with special needs can also give girls some distinct advantages. Reports indicate that the siblings of children with special needs are often more mature, more empathetic, more accepting of people who are “different,” and better able to cope with life’s challenges than their peers.

What’s more, the bond between these siblings is often stronger, and stays that way throughout their lives, because of the solid foundation they build when young.

To support your girl, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Having special needs just means having different needs. Talk openly about the challenges, strengths, and weaknesses we all possess.

  • Sometimes kids (and parents) need a break from caregiving. You might rely on your girl to support her sibling with special needs when you need some time off. Offer the same to her even when she hasn’t asked or shared that she needs a break. Show that you understand.

  • Help her grow with tangible responsibilities for her sibling that she can succeed at: preparing breakfast, reading together before bed, or simply pushing a swing.

  • Encourage her to reflect on her frustrations and challenges—and examine and open up about your own in a way she can relate to.

  • Understand that her negative behavior may just be a natural result of typical tween or teen adjustment, and it often has nothing to do with her sibling’s situation. Address such behavior directly.

  • Carve out bonding one-on-one time with all children in your family. Give each child your undivided attention and an opportunity to stand out as an individual. What’s more, this allows you, as their parent, to get to know your children better. 

  • Help her realize it’s OK to just be a kid. She doesn’t always need to be an advocate for her sibling. If she doesn’t know what to say when confronted with questions or unfortunate, rude comments others make about her sibling, develop some language together. Keep it short, honest, and within your girl’s comfort zone. For example, “Ian has autism and doesn’t always want to play with other kids, but he loves going on the jungle gym.” Have her practice the responses you come up with together. 

“It’s natural for parents and caregivers to pay extra time and attention to the child who has special needs,” explains Andrea Bastiani Archibald, Girl Scouts of the USA’s resident developmental psychologist. “But it’s also important to let typically developing kids know that their needs are also a top priority and to take steps to make every child feel valued and loved.”

Above all, do your best to stay positive about yourself and your parenting. Parenting is tough enough, and we’re all doing the best we can. The pressures of having a child with special needs can make caregiving even harder. But your ability to both handle the challenges and celebrate the bright spots will serve as a model to everyone.