Raising a child with special needs places new demands on the child's parents and close family. The guardians of the child are required to take out the time and look for the right resources to ease their child's life and in the process, may unconsciously neglect, and sometimes expect too much from their neurotypical child.
Oftentimes, a couple co-parenting a neurodivergent child and a neurotypical child might have concerns regarding the relationship their children might share, and like any other relationship, growing up with a sibling with special needs affects the child’s personal growth. Parents might be faced with many inter-family conflicts and external stressors. Parenting children on two ends of the developmental spectrum can often spring up questions regarding decisions about education, medical service, etc.
The challenging part for parents might be to strike a balance between catering to the needs of both their neurodivergent and neurotypical children. But, as hard as they may try oftentimes parents might end up neglecting or putting unrealistic expectations on their typically developing child. This might lead to the need for that child to take a backseat. In such cases, family therapy is useful in addressing the issue.
Guidance for Parents
To avoid letting their neurotypical child feel like they are not as important to their parents as their sibling with special needs, parents can take the following steps:
· Communicate: Give them the required time it takes for them to realize and accept their sibling's condition. It is important to be available and have open conversations with your child. Hear them out and acknowledge both the positives and the negatives and let them know that it is okay to feel a certain way.
Educate them about their special sibling's disorder. Storybooks, movies, and interactions between siblings can be teachable moments and help your child acknowledge and be aware of their sibling's condition. As they grow older, teach your typical child the neurological basis of their sibling's disorder. Sharing information and making the sibling a part of the process while raising a neurodivergent child strengthens the family bond.
· Understand individual needs: Making appropriate adaptations to suit the needs of the special child is important, but it shouldn't be done at the expense of their typically developing sibling. Hence, it is vital to have age-appropriate expectations from your child and not place unrealistic demands on them. They should be given caretaking responsibility that is sufficient for their age.
Parents must remember that all their children are equally unique and must be aware of each child’s strengths and weaknesses and must acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of their neurotypical child.
· Avoid comparison and labeling: Avoid labeling children as 'the smart one', 'the problem one', or 'the naughty one'. Comparison among siblings and others can lead to the development of low self-esteem within the child. Over time a neurotypical child might outperform their special sibling but parents should make it a point to not differentiate and equally appreciate the big and little wins of all their children.
· Spend one-on-one time with your child: Children are more likely to open up to their parents when they know they have their undivided attention. Hence, parents should make it a point to spend some quality time with their neurotypical child, whether it is at home or while engaging in an activity such as going to the park. Since there might be a lot of focus on the child with special needs, this is one opportunity to let your typically developing child feel appreciated
· Self-care and Self-reflection: Parents should take time out for themselves to strengthen their marital and parenting relationship. Self-reflection might also give parents some perspective about each child's needs and can help them focus better on their problem-solving and coping skills.
Finding Support for Children with Neurodivergent Siblings
Many resources are available to support siblings of special needs children. These include family therapy and sibling support groups offered by various organizations. Spending time with other children who have neurodivergent siblings may also be helpful for the child to feel understood and may contribute to understanding their sibling’s disorder better.
Often children with siblings with special needs might have ups and downs in the way they feel and might find themselves in mentally taxing situations. To avoid serious mental health issues within these children, early identification is key, and seeking professional help shouldn't be something parents should shy away from.
Warning signs can be seen as:
· Odd sleeping patterns
· Eating more or less than usual
· Being irritable
· Lacking interest in activities they previously enjoyed
· Avoiding or being hostile toward their special needs sibling
· Having trouble coping with schoolwork
· Not wanting to leave the house
· Pretending to have a disorder themselves
· Trying too hard to please others
Striking a Balance
A sibling relationship serves as the backbone of all other relationships. When a special needs child becomes the focal point of the family, it is normal for their sibling to have extreme reactions. If parents focus on communicating openly and eliminating bias, these reactions can be positive.
Taking the following steps can help improve familial relationships: being aware of each child’s needs, being sensitive to each child’s feelings, responsiveness, healthy communication, positive parenting practices, and inculcating a strong set of family values.
Growing up with a special needs sibling can be difficult but also has its advantages.
It helps the child develop compassion and empathy, an inclusive worldview which is a key to success in life. It also increases the family's problem-solving skills and their ability to overcome challenges.