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Kids with Special Needs: Impact on the Family System

Posted by on December 19th, 2011 |

Featured in Families In The Loop, October 2011

Kids with Special Needs: Impact on the Family System

Question:

I find myself feeling angry, even disappointed, that my child isn’t developing “typically.” How can I suppress these emotions in a way that doesn’t hurt my family?

Dr. Lyons’ Response:

I recommend talking through everything – the good, the bad and the ugly – with an experienced family psychologist who can help you process these feelings. Meeting with a professional will allow you to make better sense of the situation, which can benefit the family as a unit and each member individually. Consider going by yourself, in addition to bringing along the entire family.  Chances are you’re not alone in your emotions, and opening the lines of communication is a crucial component, as each member of the family learns to lean on another for emotional support. There are no feelings that are “wrong,” but without open dialogue, resentments can build.

Question:

My daughter has special needs, but my son (her brother) does not. Do you have any advice for fostering a healthy, happy relationship between them?

Dr. Lyons’ Response:

Absolutely. First, explain the disability in “kid terms” to the sibling. It’s likely that other children will ask questions, and the sibling needs to have the right language in order to answer them. The sibling should know, for example, that a sister with ADHD has trouble focusing; a sister with an Autism spectrum disorder has difficulty understanding other people’s perspectives; a sister with cerebral palsy has difficulty controlling her muscles.

Second, it’s important to explain that you can’t “catch” the disability. As the child with the disability is often visiting a variety of doctors, it makes sense that the sibling may think that this is a sickness that he could get, too. It’s equally important that other children in school understand that they cannot catch the disability.

Third, be extra-sensitive to the idea that the typically developing sibling needs special, one-on-one time with parents. Because children with special needs receive a lot of attention, a sibling may feel neglected.

Finally, allow the sibling to express his feelings. He may feel guilty (for being typical) or resentful, even if he cognitively understands that his sibling needs more care. Some children also experience “survivor guilt” or the question of “why did this happen to my brother or sister and not to me?” A feeling of embarrassment in public if a sibling is acting out is also normal.

It’s important for families to address and validate these feelings so that the typically-developing sibling can find ways to appropriately cope. Sometimes the sibling of a child with a disability can be put into or adopt a caretaking and protective role for his/her brother or sister, both at school and at home. In most cases, these siblings are often very responsible, empathic and independent young people, qualities that will benefit them in the rest of their lives.

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