A heartfelt post by our own Dr. Allison….
As we head into summer and families have more together time, I think it is important to think about the experience of the siblings of quirky kids. With less stress from school and academics, summer can be a good time to focus in on the sibling experience. And many summer activities can be an opportunity for brothers and sister to play and bond together.
Growing up with a special needs or quirky sibling sets you apart from your peers in many ways.
I grew up with a sister, who in today’s diagnostic terms, probably lives somewhere on the autistic spectrum. One of the first multi-syllable words I learned was PERSEVERATE. Because that is what my sister did, a lot.
I learned a lot about difference and disability.
I learned from a young age that having a different sort of brain isn’t necessary that most important thing about a person. As a kid, the most important thing is how willing they are to share their toys and play house with you.
And I like to think I learned some things about perspective taking and empathy.
There are a lot of good things that come from growing up in a family that is, well, just a little bit different and that does not quite fit in.
When people find out that I grew up in a special needs family and then became a psychologist who works with families raising quirky kids they often ask me what can they do to take care of the neuro-typical children in their homes.
I feel like the most important thing a parent can do is to make room for their children to be exactly who they are.
As a parent raising my own kids who have varying degrees of quirkiness, I know that this is often easier said than done.
Often the child with the official “special needs” has, well, a lot of needs. Often parents are stressed out. Sometimes parents ask the other children in the home to have it all together. This can happen in both overt and covert ways.
But if a parent is actively thinking about this topic, then they are halfway to having a good handle on it. It means they have some perspective on the experience of all their children.
It means that you recognize that sometimes things get out of balance and impact the emotional life of your children.
This is my advice both as a psychologist, a mom and as the sister to someone with severe special needs.
1) Make space for all your child’s feelings about what is going on in the family and with the special needs siblings. Honor the hard, ungenerous feelings that we all have at times.
2) Make space for the unique struggles of the child without the official disability or learning difference. It is easy to minimize a child’s struggles when they are lucky enough not to have official “special needs.” Let your children know through your actions and your words that all struggles and problems are important.
3) Give siblings a space or activity of their own where they do not necessarily have to share or accommodate their sibling.
4) Help them understand what the particular “special needs” are in your family in an age appropriate way, especially the things that impact them and family life directly. Be honest when you answer their questions and let them in on your thought process (in an age appropriate way) as you make decisions that impact the whole family.
This does not necessarily mean you have to talk about labels and diagnosis. You can talk specifically about a particular struggle and help them understand it. Your other kids likely already know about it if, for example, one of your children has meltdowns every morning. Be curious about how they make sense of it all. Open the lines of communication so that they can talk with you about their experience or concerns.
5) Remember that you are modeling how to act with empathy, compassion and self-awareness when someone is struggling. Children will learn what to do when things are hard by watching what you do.
There are times when you will need your more capable children to step up. That is life and there is nothing wrong with it. It only becomes a problem the “typical” child is being ask to ignore his own emotional or developmental needs.
We know as parents that all children are not equal. Some children simply need more support. Some children need more from us emotionally. Some children have a much lower tolerance for frustration. Some children are more flexible and some are less. This is true in every family, special needs or not.
Being a sib to a quirky kid is a gift in many ways. I am proud to be a member of this group. You as a parent can help your child navigate this path in a way that allows all of the members of your family to thrive.
If you want more information on parenting your unique child, we suggest you check out our FREE Parenting Classes. We offer a new class every month. Click here to learn more.
Looking for support for your child and/or yourself as a parent? We offer therapy and coaching in our offices in Massachusetts, as well as coaching by phone or Skype for families in the USA and internationally. Click here to contact us for more information.