Raising Typical Siblings to Special Kids

  • Typical Siblings to Special Kids: Raising Them to be Responsible and Empathetic

    By Shanti Kurada

    If you have a typically developing child or children be- sides your special one, you know that it can be both a blessing and a challenge. You know how difficult it is to meet their different and often conflicting needs. No matter how hard you try, sometimes you end up feeling guilty about neglecting one or the other child. Rather than dismissing problems with clichés such as ‘taking it one day at a time’, or ‘it’s a phase – it’ll pass’, it is much more helpful to have certain goals and strategies in place. The goals are very important because sometimes as parents, we operate on unreason- able goals – we want too much, too soon, out of both our typical and special children. In this case no amount of strategizing will help – what will help is a shift in perspective.

    Here are some goals that are reasonable for every parent to aim for:

    1. Set aside dedicated time in the day for the typical child (sibling to a special child), to have fun with him/her, partake in his activities, help him with homework, be a source of support and strength when he is feeling upset/disappointed/frustrated. This time can be as short or as long as it is possible for each family, but it should be uninterrupted, quality time, when the other (special) child is fully engaged.

    2. Set aside dedicated time every day for the special child, to implement and practice the speech/communication/behavior/social skills techniques learned from therapy/professionals/books/ friends/workshops. To have sufficient time to enjoy your special child, go to fun places that he enjoys. Once again, the duration may differ for each family – however, consistency is important.

    3. Schedule some time in the day for interaction between the siblings. This could be something as structured as a facilitated board game or as spontaneous/open ended as a trip to the beach – it can be as short as 10 minutes or as long as a day trip – depending on the special one’s needs.

    An example of this type of scheduling can be as follows –

    M, W, F – your special child has respite/therapy –this could be used as dedicated time for your typical child T, Sat – your typical child has soccer practice – this could be dedicated time with your special child

    Sunday afternoon – plan a baking activity, go for a walk or a bike ride in the park with both kids.  

    4. Develop a healthy relationship with your typical child, one that is comfortable and trusting; one that allows you to be able to discuss your special child’s needs in an open, positive, non-threatening manner.

    5. Build a bond between the siblings that is genuine, loving, and not forced through threats, pity, or a gloomy sense of duty.

    Here are some strategies that parents can use with their typical children to work toward the above goals.

    Validate Feelings – If your special child has broken your typical one’s favorite toy or precious art project, if he snatched the last cookie on the plate or simply ate away his sibling’s share, and your typical sibling is upset/angry/frustrated/crying – DO NOT scold, lecture, reassure, or plead with him. Validate his feelings by saying “It is hard to see your project messed up after you put so much work into it.” Or “I don’t think I would like it if all my cookies were eaten either.” Validation is the most powerful tool in helping people deal with negative feelings.

    Use your I-statements, especially when your special child can’t speak for himself – It is a lot more non-threatening to say, “I think he wants to be left alone right now.” Rather than “Stop bothering him!” (When your typical child is overwhelming your special one).

    Try joint problem solving – Come up with a list of options, strike out the ones that won’t work, and narrow down to a few possibilities, then try out each one. “Let’s sit down and work this out.” solves problems faster than “You better listen to me.” Or “Because I said so.”

    Appreciate help even when it’s imperfect – do not shoo your typical sibling out of the way when he makes a mess in the kitchen. Parents’ attitude of “I’d rather do it myself than clean up after him.” only discourages siblings from growing up to be helpful people.

    When criticizing, use positive phrases – “Let’s work on sharing better.” rather than “You are so bad at sharing!”

    Get your typical child involved right from the beginning – talk about why you are doing certain therapies with your special child, how you think it might help him. Highlight what your special child has been learning recently. Discuss his challenges and ask for your typical child’s input. Be willing to try some of his suggestions.

    Teach him to observe and interpret signals – Your special child may indicate increasing levels of frustration with a certain gesture or sound, or by becoming hyper or withdrawn. It is important to teach your typical child not only how to communicate with his sibling, but also to ‘read’ his moods, gestures, and body language.

    Do expect your typical child to make minor adjustments based on your special one’s needs – you may not be able to take him clothes shopping as planned, or you may have to miss going to a movie. Tell him you are sorry and discuss ways to reschedule. However, do not modify his entire life based on your special one’s needs. Reasonable adjustments build character. Major adjustments can lead to resentment. Never make him feel guilty for having fun some- times without his special sibling.

    Provide your typical child with ways to retreat when you are going through emotionally draining situations with your special child. It is important to help your typical child develop hobbies and interests in which he can engage independently. Reading is an excel- lent example and works for all kids. Other activities can include art, building Legos or Bionicles, collecting objects – provide a quiet place for these pursuits.

    Know when to ask for help and when not to – you can ask your typical child to help you out in reasonable ways appropriate for his age – you can ask him to fetch you towels when cleaning up a mess, or help with packing when going on a trip. However, no matter how demanding the situation is, do not take him away from his school work or his friends or his fun activities when you need help.

    Do not expect your typical child to behave like an adult – do not be shocked when his interference sometimes makes things worse. He may not know how to interact with your special one. He may irritate him, make him hyper, or push him over the edge. Expect some of this childish behavior to happen and allow the siblings to resolve it on their own. This is a great learning opportunity for your special sibling. Interfere only when physical danger or extreme frustration is likely.

    Never take out frustration with your special child on your typical one. If you are frustrated or under a lot of stress, talk to your spouse, your friend, or see a counselor. These are adults – and it is okay to unburden your stress by sharing your stressful feelings with them – children are not the vehicle for this.

    Do not burden your typical child with adult problems. If you are worried about your special child’s financial future, do not share this with your typical child. You can talk to him about it when he is an adult. Right now is the time to build empathy and responsibility in him in small steps and in your everyday interactions.

    Do not expect your typical child to put up with extreme behavior from his special sibling – teach him positive ways to handle these situations, with both understanding and firmness. Your special child will not benefit from having you ‘rescue’ him all the time. Holding him to some standards of behavior can be beneficial to his development and success in the world.


    Remember that the strategies become easier to implement, when you are very clear on your goals. Now, go back and take a look at the goals. Are these goals too lofty? Bear in mind that raising children is always a work in progress. At any given time, there will be both problems and successes. As soon as you solve some of the problems, new ones will crop up. Children are dynamic beings – constantly changing, growing, and presenting us with new challenges. Therefore the first 3 goals are always in flux – sometimes you will end up dedicating more time to one child or the other. Having said that, it is still possible to have everyone on the right path if you achieve the last 2 goals – having a healthy relationship with your typical child and developing a bond between the siblings. These 2 goals serve as the foundation for the ups and downs of life – when life is uneven and unfair (as it tends to be at least half the time) – it is our strong relationships and bonds that weather the storm and help keep us together.

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