It should not be surprising that we received a lot of feedback on the community question: “How do you explain your child’s cerebral palsy to other siblings to help them understand?” There are more than six million people with disabilities living in the United States alone, and most of these people have brothers and sisters. As organizations like the Sibling Support Project suggest, growing up with a special needs sibling brings up its own unique issues and concerns.
Children who grow up with a special needs sibling are often under more stress. They may feel guilty for being the “healthy” sibling and try to overcompensate by setting higher expectations for themselves. They worry about taking care of their special needs sibling when they get older. Some children don’t understand what the condition is and worry that they might catch it too. They may even feel jealous or resentful because they are not receiving mom and dad’s full attention at a time when they need it most.
We know that raising a family with a mix of typical developing and special needs children is especially challenging. With the advice given by other families on our Facebook page, along with some additional research, here are the five ways parents can help children understand their sibling’s cerebral palsy:
1. Be Honest
When your children ask questions about their brother or sister’s cerebral palsy, explain it to them in a way they will understand. Younger children may wonder why an older sibling cannot walk or talk yet, but if you explain that little Johnny has a “brain boo-boo,” that may be easier to understand. As children get older, you can give a more detailed explanation.
2. Give Each Child One-on-One Time
Pick a specific time every day or week to catch up with each child individually. Maybe you plan a weekly dinner date for just the two of you, or take an evening stroll through the neighborhood. Not only will you be acknowledging your child’s individual needs, you’ll be creating memories that your child will remember for life.
3. Keep Siblings Involved in Your Child’s Care
Sharing responsibilities may help siblings understand the extra care required when raising a disabled child. Asking for help with simple tasks will also give them a sense of purpose, making them like feel part of the team rather than in the way.
4. Encourage Them to Have Their Own Identity
Sometimes children feel like they live in the shadow of another sibling. Allow them to be themselves. Let them know that it’s ok to live their individual lives. Help them find out their talents by joining clubs and socializing with other children.
5. Know When to Seek Outside Help
Sometimes children will act out for attention by pretending to be ill. Or you’ll notice signs of depression, anxiety, or anger. If you witness any behavioral changes in your child, it may be necessary to speak to a professional counselor or therapist. Because children with disabled siblings are prone to higher stress levels, addressing issues of “acting out” sooner will prevent future strain on the family.
The Good News
There is also some great news! According the the New York Langone Medical Center, growing up with a sibling with special needs has its benefits. These children tend to develop skills like problem-solving, flexibility, teamwork, and compassion, all of which are very important in the real-world.
Is your family a mix of typical developing and special needs children? Have you had any issues with sibling rivalry? What other advice can we add to this list? Share your thoughts below!
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