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April 12, 2016

Facebook Question: "What About The Siblings of My Special Needs Child?"

Written by Dr. John Carosso

A parent on Facebook asked a good question regarding the difficulty of her other children, the siblings of her special needs child, not understanding the difference in discipline between them and their brother, and how this causes dissension and frustration. In addition, from other parents, there has been concern expressed about siblings copying maladaptive behavior, and feeling as if they are not getting as much attention. All of these issues will be addressed in today’s post.

Dealing with discipline

There often is a difference in expectations and subsequent discipline between a child with special needs, and their neuro-typical siblings. It’s not uncommon that siblings pick-up pretty quickly on these differences, and lament that they are being treated unfairly (“my brother does things and there is no punishment, but when I do them I get punished!!”). The first step is to provide some degree of empathy and, in reflective comments, express that you appreciate how this might appear confusing and unfair. However, I would suggest that you next express that you’re the parent and you can be trusted to make good decisions to determine the proper level discipline for each child in the family, that each child is different, has different needs requires a different parenting style, and you’ll make those decisions to meet those needs. You can remind your child that those decisions are based on lots of things including age but also on the ability to show self-control, and based on other strengths and weaknesses. You can explain that if one of the members of the family has hard time controlling their actions, they are given a bit more leeway and support until they learn how to show more self-control. You can explain that you have a very good idea to what extent each of your children can control themselves, and you’ll discipline accordingly. Also, you could ask your child if they would trade for their sibling's struggles to get less discipline?

Siblings copying behavior

Usually this entails a younger siblings copying the emotion and any odd behaviors of their older sibling. This too is handled in a pretty straight-forward manner; explaining that any behavior that is inappropriate will be managed with limit-setting and consequences, and pro-social behavior will be handsomely rewarded. Remain consistent with punishments, and lavish in praise. However, it’s important to note that, in some cases, the emotional escalation from a sibling is not copying their special-needs sibling, but simply a demonstration of built-up frustration that the special needs sibling's behavior is disrupting the home environment. In that instance, it’s important to provide the kiddo with an empathetic ear (maybe even a professional counselor), a safe place to play in peace and quiet, and to work diligently to restore the family structure and reduce the extent to which the sibling is overly emotional and disruptive to the family harmony.

What if my child feels his special-needs sibling is getting a lot more attention?

If your child feels this way, it is likely the truth, which is a common reality in many families. The fact is that your special needs kiddo needs more attention than your other children, and you have to provide it. There is no way around that. However, there are a few things to consider including setting aside time weekly, if not daily, even a few minutes, that is you and your child’s “special time” to sit together, do something fun, talk, go for a walk, or do whatever they want to do. It’s also important to make your special-needs child’s trips to the doctor’s office, or other appointments, that your other child attends too, as fun as possible with whatever games, bringing along a friend, and special rewards to being a good brother or sister. Also, it’s important to continue to emphasize that every family has to work together to help each other and that this what a family does. That may fall on deaf ears after a few years, but it’s worth repeating nonetheless. It can also be helpful to incorporate the help of the spouse, relatives, trusted neighbors who can lighten the load and give extra time for you and your other children.

Okay, that provides an overview of some things to consider when dealing with these issues; however, we all know that these points just scratch the surface. Please go to my Facebook page and describe what you’ve done in response to these challenges. We can all learn together!! Thank you.

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