Most everyone understands that receiving a diagnosis of a developmental delay is fraught with a number of emotions for a child’s parents. But many people forget how hard it can be on the siblings. While parents are dealing with questions about the future, along with grieving the loss of their dreams for the child with special developmental needs, their other children are dealing with issues of their own. They may feel confusion or anger over why this is happening in their family, or to their brother or sister, and wondering why God would allow this to happen. They may feel embarrassed over their brother’s behavior at times, or the fact that their family is different from the “normal” families of their friends. They might feel put upon for having to carry added responsibilities for their brother. Any or all of these could lead to something you’re probably concerned about in your kids – resentment.
So how can you help your children deal with your family’s situation in a healthy way? It begins with talking to your kids about their feelings. Help them identify their emotions, and remember that they may be grieving too. Let them know that it’s safe to talk about how they feel, even if you aren’t personally comfortable with those feelings. If, for example, a child tells you he feels embarrassed because of the way his brother with autism behaves in public, don’t respond with immediate correction. Discouraging a child from voicing his emotions will not only shut down the conversation in the present moment, but will inhibit future communication as well.
While it’s vital for your kids to identify and express their feelings, it’s also important to find ways to keep your children from “camping out” in a negative mindset. Acknowledge their feelings, but help them see that as a family and with God’s help you can deal with and grow from this experience. Point them to Scriptures that teach how God is close to those who hurt, and that He is a constant friend who can be trusted and relied upon. You’ll teach them a great life skill by helping them move their focus off of whatever problem they are facing and on to God, the ultimate source of help and hope.
With regard to your kids’ feelings about your family being different, it would be good to acknowledge that your family is different in some respects, but not in every way they might think. Let them know that while not all families deal with developmental delays, no family is exempt from struggles and hardships. Every family has problems, and many deal with issues that are extremely painful (substance abuse or broken relationships, for instance) but which may not be noticeable to others.
Here are some other things you can do to help your children:
- Continue to provide as normal an environment as possible. Given the significant changes your children are experiencing, you can provide much-needed stability simply by maintaining the usual rhythms of life.
- Communicate value to them. For children this generally means giving them time and attention. If your other children see all of your energies going to your child with autism (and it sometimes seems this way when one has a child with special needs), they may feel less valued than their brother with autism. While this can be difficult for parents of a child with special needs, we would urge you to carve time out of your schedule for each of your children, doing things that are important to them. Giving your kids your attention doesn’t mean you have to spend the exact same amount of time with each of your children – that may not be possible, especially during periods when your youngest child’s needs are greatest. It does require, however, that you be intentional about devoting quality and quantity time to each child. 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.
- Help your children realize their brother’s true value. Teach them to see their brother not just as a person with autism, but as a person made in the image of God, with immeasurable value. Remind them that their brother’s worth isn’t based on what he can or can’t do, or whether he fits the world’s description of a “whole” person. Give special thought to pointing out his different abilities – not what he can’t do, but what he can do – and how those might be used by God.
- Don’t ask or expect your children to be “caretakers” of a sibling with special needs. Older children can have an age-appropriate and valuable role in caring for the needs of younger siblings, but we’d advise 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.
- Look for the “upsides” of special needs. Without minimizing how difficult it can be to care for a child with special needs, we recommend concentrating on the positive benefits your children can derive from this experience. Your children will have the opportunity to learn love, show empathy, and to practice compassion in ways that others might not.
If you think it might be helpful to discuss your concerns with a member of our Counseling staff, give us a call for a free consultation.
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