All in the Family by Seth Grossman, Psy.D

Yet another holiday season is fast approaching, replete with family gatherings, reunions, celebrations… and all the familiar family dynamics. For those homes and families with special needs members, there are even more layers to think through. In the mix of emotional days ahead, remember to take a little time to contemplate some of the needs of those who “share the stage” – particularly, the siblings of family members with special needs.

But I treat everyone equally and thoughtfully.” In most households, that is most likely true. While there are comparatively fewer families that would be considered outwardly neglectful, so many considerations are easy to miss, even by those who are most careful and attentive. Still other situations leave well-intentioned parents and family members perplexed. For example, with younger aged siblings, there should be a consistent plan for dealing with well-meaning extended family members who shower a developmentally disabled child with “fun” gifts while giving the sibling some kind of “smart kid” toy. For older-aged siblings, you may need to delicately manage your college students’ homecoming from a disappointing semester while the tales of how the special needs sibling is progressing in an adaptive higher education program enthralls the whole family.

The siblings of special needs individuals face a myriad of conflicting emotions, thoughts, and wishes, and will likely grapple with these throughout their lives. Unconsciously, they may feel a sense of responsibility on a number of levels. Very young children, prior to fully understanding their sibling’s disorder, may feel like they had something to do with its cause. As children mature, they may begin to carry a sense of duty to provide pride to their parents that the other child cannot. And as they reach adulthood, they begin to contemplate their role as future caregiver and the implications that will hold throughout their lives. And this is just the beginning. Their feelings go far beyond simply contemplating their sibling role. Consider this: Even the brightest and most adaptive siblings who are the best of friends will generate anger in each other. Figuring out how to resolve that anger is one of the most vital social learning experiences of childhood. What happens when that anger is generated by an inappropriate but “understandable” action of the disabled child? What of the frustration in the healthy sibling’s social experiences when other children are insensitive and (as children can be) cruel. Mixed messages, mixed feelings, and a lot of guilt and burden are all very human, very understandable, but very forbidden ill feelings.

What can be done? First, recognize that as a parent, family member or caregiver, you are human. You will try to cover all bases assuring that no one ever gets hurt, mistreated, neglected, or overlooked… but that is just simply impossible. In fact, that kind of perfection seeking is not even helpful. Siblings are going to need to learn how to deal with unanswered questions and ambivalent feelings. What you can do is own your errors (you will make them) as well as your best possible choices (which will still have embedded imperfections) and be the best support and guide you can be for all your loved ones. Here are a few suggestions:

Help “normalize” mixed feelings: Here, a little empathy goes a long way. When the disabled sibling requires more attention, for example, it is important to acknowledge and validate any negative feelings from the other sibling, while still setting appropriate expectations for good behavior. It is easy to either patronize and champion unrealistically or to go to the other extreme and take good behavior for granted. A simple acknowledgment of their effort and patience, and a “thank you”, are a very good start.

Educate other family members: The natural inclination of well-meaning relatives is the “make it right” response so that the disabled sibling feels “extra special because of what they must go through.” These family members can be encouraged to “share the wealth”. It’s your job to help them recognize vital needs of all of the siblings.

Educate the healthy sibling: Use your best judgment on what information they receive and when, but don’t be overcautious. Helping them understand the special needs and differences is best heard from the primary caretakers rather than by less familiar relatives-or the sibling’s peers. An early understanding helps guard against resentment that can arise from well-intentioned attempts to spare their feelings.

Spend some “alone” time with the healthy sibling. Foster a feeling of connectedness by planning some individual time away from some of the usual feelings and pressures of family life. Anything from some brief errand time to special acknowledgment with a one-on-one dinner out can be helpful in this way.

Recognize differences: Remember that for genetic siblings, a brother or sister is the closest physical and psychological reflection of themselves. When there are pronounced adaptive differences set against similar genetic features, there are also mixed messages. Be sure to encourage productive conversations about concerns, observations, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of loss over “the sibling that could have been.” It is similar, in some ways, to what a parent faces when discovering the disability and it, too, is deserving of time, attention, and help.

Fostering an atmosphere of openness and understanding can go a long way. This is helpful not only in enjoying the holiday season but also in creating best possibilities for all people involved in special families.

Seth Grossman, Psy.D. is the founder and clinical director of The Center for Psychological Fitness, in Cooper City, FL, a holistic mental health and wellness practice offering a wide range of assessment and treatment services. Several programs are available for special needs families.

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