How do we help our other kids thrive when we have to devote so much time and attention to our child with special needs? My husband and I have four kids ranging in age from eight years to two months. Our youngest son was born with Down syndrome, and as a family, we're doing our best to adjust. I am concerned, though, about the impact this might have on our older three children.
Many people forget that when a family has a child with special needs, it's not only that child who needs attention, nor is it just the parents who are faced with significant life challenges. The life of each sibling is also affected, and we're glad that you are considering how to ensure that their needs are not overlooked and neglected.
These are legitimate concerns and considerations, but it's also important to note some of the positive benefits your children can derive from this experience. Among other things, they have the opportunity to learn love, show empathy, and to practice compassion for others in ways that others might not. And they will discover firsthand that the value of life is not predicated on a person's physical or mental condition, but that worth is ascribed by God to every individual and is inherent to every human being.
So how do you help your "typical" children realize these positives and thrive in their current situation? Here are a few things to consider:
- Talk to your children about their feelings. As in any parenting situation, you have the responsibility to set the tone in your household. One way to do this is to create an environment in which your children can identify and express their feelings. Ask them regularly how they're doing and be prepared to hear a range of emotions without "correcting" your kids for experiencing them. Let them know that their feelings are normal. For example, a child might express confusion and question why God allowed your youngest to be born with Down syndrome. It's not wrong for your child to wonder about this, and he shouldn't be shamed for it. If your child has a tendency to avoid or minimize negative feelings, you may need to explain that it's normal to feel sadness, disappointment, and even anger at times – and you must be willing to model a healthy balance of your own emotions.
- Communicate value to each child. You'll be spending a lot of time tending to the needs of your youngest child-that's just the reality of the situation. Because time and attention communicate value to a child, devoting these to your son with Down syndrome while "short-changing" the others might be misinterpreted by them as indicating that they are not as important. Giving your kids your attention doesn't mean you have to spend the exact same amount of time with each one of them. That may not be possible, especially during periods when your youngest child's needs are greatest. It does mean, however, that being intentional about dedicating quality and quantity time to each child is especially important. Consider ways you can spend time doing things that are important to each of your kids. If one child is involved in sports, attend her meets or games. Another child might enjoy a hobby such as art. Connect with her on that level, perhaps by taking an art class with her or visiting museums together.
- Don't make your other kids "caretakers" of the child with special needs. Older children can have an age-appropriate and valuable role in caring for the needs of younger siblings. But we would urge you not to request or require older brothers and sisters to provide the type of care that an adult caregiver should provide. Your other children are just that – children – and need the freedom to be kids.
- Realize that a child with special needs is part of the family – not the family. There will be times when the rest of the family wants to do something that might not be easy or possible for a child with special needs. For instance, a family may enjoy the theater together, but a child with certain special needs may find it difficult or impossible to sit quietly through a performance. In this case, instead of the family forsaking all hope of ever going to a play, it would be best to find care for the child with special needs for an evening so that everyone else can enjoy the outing.
- To the extent that it's possible, extend your expectations for appropriate behaviors to all members of the family. There are limitations here, of course, depending on the nature and intensity of a child's special needs. But having some set of standards that apply to all your children not only gives them a sense that they are being treated fairly, but encourages the child with special needs to develop self-control and lets him realize that he can and should behave appropriately. If, for example, you expect members of the family to sit at the dinner table until everyone is finished eating, it would be appropriate to teach a child with a developmental challenge to follow the same rule. Again, certain special needs and challenges can make it difficult to teach or enforce some household policies, but setting rules that apply to all helps make everyone feel like they are on the same team.
If you think it might be helpful to discuss your concerns, call our Counseling staff for a free consultation.