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Challenges for Siblings with Special Needs: Their Own Unique Needs

If you want to know how to treat a child with special needs, look at their sibling, they will show you.

Siblings of special needs children are quite special. They are accepting and loving to someone who is different. Yet having a special needs sibling can come with challenges that may lead to confusion and family conflict. As hard as caregivers try, sometimes their typically developing children are neglected or are expected to do too much.

Siblings may develop their own unique challenges

Siblings of children with special needs are at greater risk for developing emotional challenges, anxiety and stress. These challenges are known as internalizing issues, not obviously visible, and may be an attempt by these siblings to hide their problems; they may want to be well-behaved or protect their already overburdened parents.

Siblings become overly responsive and independent

Considering all of the attention that is given to the child with a disability, it is not surprising if siblings neglect their own issues. In some cases, siblings may develop parentification where they are expected to have many responsibilities for themselves and their sibling, developing duties similar to those of a parent. While these responsibilities may seem positive to parents, they may lead to emotional distress.

Siblings may feel neglected by their parents

The family focus on the child with the disability may take time away from the sibling. Time spent on medical treatment and therapy appointments limits the amount of time parents can spend their other child(ren), resulting in feelings of neglect. Further, parents may spend a great deal of emotional energy on the child with the disability, leaving little emotional energy to support the sibling.

Parents can mitigate some of these challenges

There are a few things that caregivers can do to help their children develop a healthy sibling relationship such as:

1. Give them one-one-one time

2. Don't let them take on too much

3. Make sure they have time for their own activities, lessons, appointments, friends

4. Watch for signs of frustration or excessive worry

5. Provide access to accurate, age-appropriate information

6. Celebrate each child’s achievements and success

7. Be open and honest about the future

Above all, remember that while siblings may play different roles in the life of their brother or sister, siblings have their own life too. Recognizing them as individuals and respecting their boundaries are two predominant ways to support siblings as they prepare for a future, both as part of their family unit and as people with their own goals, hopes and dreams.

There are advantages growing up with a special needs sibling

Growing up with a brother or sister with special needs can be difficult for typically developing siblings, but it can also have benefits. It can help to develop dependability, empathy, and increase resilience.

Siblings learn to see life from a different perspective, which help them make personal and professional decisions like choosing friends, a career path, and what qualities to look for in a partner.


Want to learn more about life as a sibling?

Want a deeper insight into the emotions, concerns, behaviors and experiences of those with special needs siblings? Consider participating in a workshop for siblings of children with disabilities, such as Sibshop. Sibshop programs provide opportunities for brothers and sisters of children with special needs to obtain peer support and education within a highly recreational context. Organizers and families appreciate that the workshops take a wellness approach, and the siblings who attend the workshops appreciate that they're fun and engaging.


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