In recent years, the combination of changes in social attitudes and legal reforms has contributed to improving the lives of children with disabilities and special education needs. As a society, we understand special needs better, and are more accommodating and tolerant than we were in the past. Adequate or not, there is now a support framework in place to help and protect children with SEND and, to a lesser extent, also their parents and carers.
However, there is one family member that often gets lost in the process and doesn’t benefit from the same support network - the sibling.
There are a lot of benefits children with special needs can bring to their siblings, including teaching them compassion and kindness, as well as developing their resilience and maturity.
Nonetheless, siblings of children with SEN can also experience many negative or conflicting feelings and emotions. These range from anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation, frustration from the inability to express conflicting emotions, to feeling neglected, less important, experiencing constant pressure to be perfect and feeling reluctant to ask for help or attention.
It’s easy to lose ourselves in daily challenges of caring for children with special needs but there are a number of things we can do to ease the burden on their siblings:
- Give them space and permission to express their emotions and validate them. We know that they love their siblings but it’s also ok to feel angry and resentful at times
- Set high expectations for them but remember that they may already be setting unrealistically high expectations for themselves because they want to lessen the burden on you and minimise your worries
- Expect and allow for the typical siblings conflict. Siblings conflict is an important part of growing up. Make them feel that it’s ok and they don’t always have to compromise and give in
- Create a safe environment and make them feel that their comfort and safety are as important as their siblings’
- Connect them with a siblings support programmes available near you or, if there are none available, try to network with other local parents to allow them to meet other children who are also siblings of SEN children. This will normalise their situation and allow them to talk about their feelings and challenges on a different level
- Despite your instincts to shield them from reality, provide access to age appropriate information and, as much as possible and sensible, include them in meetings and decision making - whether it relates to holidays, school choices or days out. Feelings of isolation are a significant problem. -
- Make them feel that they are part of the “team”
- Difficult as it is, make space for quality 1:1 time with them, even if it’s only one weekly activity or 10 minutes at bedtime