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Well Siblings

By Judy Loseff Lavin, M.S.W.
Author of Special Kids Need Special Parents

When a child has special needs, it affects everyone in the family. Well siblings have a myriad of often intense and mixed emotions about their brother or sister who has special needs. Studies show that in addition to feeling protective and loving towards them, they can also feel angry at, embarrassed by or guilty about their sibling. If the brother or sister’s feelings are ignored, it can present major problems down the road. Some siblings can have so much guilt that when they become young adults, they can be suicidal. It’s a complicated issue that needs to be addressed.

Parenting tips for preventing this situation:

Communicate openly, fully and often.
Parents cannot assume that their well children know what’s going on or why their sibling is ill. Discuss these issues openly and fully, often, again, and again, with your well children. One problem that families with children who have extra challenges deal with is the emotional nature of the situation. Some parents are so hurt by and exhausted from dealing with the special child that they either don’t want to explain his issues to the well sibling, or they forget to discuss it. They may assume that since they all live in the same house, the siblings know what’s wrong with “Jimmy.” This is usually not the case.

Well siblings need to understand their brother or sister’s issues. Well siblings can become unnecessarily frightened by a brother or sister’s condition and fear that he or she may catch it. Parents in special families must keep the lines of communication open among and between all members, even though this can be painful and difficult.

Express your feelings and your empathy and show affection.
In addition to being afraid, well siblings can also become jealous. Parents have trouble understanding this. How could their well child ever wish for their sibling’s affliction? “Who would want surgery or other ailments?” Parents ask. However, it’s not about surgery or ailments, it’s about attention.

Well siblings want the same ‘unique’ bond that parents have with the child who has extra issues. They can feel diminished or loved less because they don’t have those issues -- they aren’t running to doctors with mom and dad, or staying overnight in the hospital with them. It’s difficult.

Ease these negative feelings with extra hugs and kisses and spend uninterrupted special time with the well child. Reiterate that the reason you spend more time with their affected sibling is not because you love him or her more, but because the child’s needs are different.

You can also say that you can understand why that makes other children in the family feel ignored or angry, says Adele Faber, co-author of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Ask her to be sure to tell you if she’s ever feeling ignored so that you can let her know how very special she is to you.

Be patient
It’s important for parents to know that sometimes, no matter what you do to help your well child, it takes time for them to mature and to be able to see the big picture. Teenagers can become very upset and embarrassed by the brother or sister who has special needs and that’s normal. Often, kids don’t fully accept themselves and their siblings until they reach young adulthood. However, there is good news. Studies show that in spite of the well sibling’s emotional struggle with his affected sibling, in the end they, like many parents, believe that having a special family positively influenced their lives.

Judith Lavin, M.S.W., author of Special Kids Need Special Parents, and a former journalist with the Chicago Sun-Times, recognized the need for an easy-to-read resource for physically and emotionally exhausted parents like herself, as well as their families, teachers, doctors and others who work with them. Lavin speaks to numerous organizations and parent groups around the nation, giving them inspiration and hope.

Lavin’s work has been featured in numerous publications such as the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Newsday, Washington Parent and Chicago Parent. In addition, she has appeared  on radio and TV news and talk shows around the U.S., including NBC-TV's Today show, PBS-TV's Small Talk for Parents and the CBS Radio Networks. You can visit Judy at