My 10-year-old brother Danny watched the boys at summer camp running, swimming and playing. Though only 5 myself, I knew how much he wanted to join them. We had come to visit our older brother, Leo, who had special needs. Leo still had a week of camp left, but he cried and begged to go home. Because the doctor had said camp would be good for him, our parents made him stay.
Camp wasn't good for Leo. Our parents still regret not taking him home and letting Danny take his place. They could never afford to send another child to camp. We had other siblings with special needs, and the camp episode was only the beginning of many years of our having to understand why my other siblings received extra attention.
Be as fair as possible
If you have a special needs child with siblings, you undoubtedly face similar dilemmas. You try to love your children equally, but you can't possibly provide for them all in the same way. Some children simply need more of your time, energy and resources. Still, it's important to help your other children feel you love them as much as the ones who need you more.
Treat your special needs child as much like your other children as possible:
- Be as fair as you can with discipline. Otherwise your other children will believe the special needs child gets away with everything.
- Don't underestimate the power of the sinful nature. Even special needs children may do something wrong and then act as if they couldn't help it. They may purposely get siblings into trouble and then laugh about it later.
- Refuse to make excuses for special needs children, especially in their presence. They will rise to your expectations up to the limits of their abilities. If you allow excuses, their siblings — who may know more about the child's capabilities than what the child allows you to see — will feel you're unfair.
- If the special needs child is your eldest and the second child has to take on eldest-child responsibilities, make sure to grant that second child some eldest-child privileges, as well.
- If the special needs child is younger, allow your older children to have a childhood.
Life in the shadows
Marilyn's younger brother David was paralyzed from the waist down. Everything in the home revolved around him.
"If David didn't want to do something, he didn't have to. My mother wanted peace at any cost," Marilyn says.
Marilyn couldn't have her friends over for sleepovers because it might upset David. Her dad sold his business and the family moved in the middle of her sophomore year of high school, for David. David got everything, including their mother's attention.
"I felt like I was in the corner all the time. I wish my mother had taken time to give me some special attention, to do something just for me."
Still, Marilyn remembers one special evening with her dad. "He took me to an elementary school play and we ate dinner at a restaurant, which was a big thing for us. He bought me a Coke that I got to have all to myself. (Usually I had to share with David.) My Dad even opened the doors for me."
This "date" with her father stands out as one of Marilyn's best memories, which demonstrates the value of individual attention.
Make each child feel special
Psychologist and author Georgia Shaffer, who is the parent of a special needs child, says, "Having a child with special needs is extremely draining on the whole family. One of the problems is that these children know they are 'different' and the parents are working so hard to help the child with problems and fight for them that they have little time and energy to focus on the children who appear to be doing fine. The message that is inadvertently communicated to the latter is, 'Unless there is a problem you aren't all that important.' Intentionally set aside time alone to interact with each child in a way that means something to them. Even if it is only five minutes a day you are saying, 'You are special to me.' "
- Make a point to spend individual time with each of your children.
- Discuss their feelings about the special needs child.
- Ask what they need and want from you.
- Assure them of your love for them.
- Thank them for their understanding and help.
- Occasionally reward them for their help and good attitude.
- Periodically find someone to care for the special needs child and take each child out on an individual "date."
By giving special needs siblings some individual attention, you can help them understand the important place they hold in your heart and in the family.