Am I Special Too? Growing up with a sibling with special needs. By Erika Thomas, LMFT
I'd like to preface this by saying I believe one of the greatest gifts a child can receive is to grow up with a sibling who has special needs. Children with this gift have the opportunity to develop patience, compassion, appreciation for small victories, joy, acceptance, laughter, a lens of the world that is not so narrow and the list goes on. They also get to call some of the most amazing people on the planet "sister" or "brother".
In addition to all the blessings, in many cases, having a sibling with special needs brings about special challenges.
Years ago I worked with an incredible boy who we will call Evan. Evan was diagnosed with autism and had some pretty severe behavioral challenges. I worked with Evan at his home several days a week for several hours a day. There were other behavior therapists on the case as well, so whenever Evan was at home and awake he had a buddy with him.
Evan had an adorable brother we will call Max. Max adored his brother but had to be careful because sometimes his brother was physically aggressive toward him. Sometimes Evan would break Max's toys and sometimes Max's friends would be afraid of Evan and end play dates early. When Max's family went to birthday parties, or the beach, or to amusement parks they would often have to leave early if Evan was having a hard time... Even if Max was still having fun. At home, Max would want to play with Evan's helpers too, but he pretty much just had to stay out of the way.
I know a lot of parents who do an incredible job ensuring each child feels equally loved and equally special. In spite of their best efforts, however, in my work with families over the past 15 years I have also seen children:
- Act out as an attempt to balance parental attention they may feel is unevenly distributed.
- They may develop anxiety in response to unpredictability and lack of control.
- They may experience resentment, or low self esteem as the family is structured around the needs of the other child.
- They may become hyper vigilant in an attempt to become the perfect child - taking care of what they perceive to be their parent's needs.
- These individuals could grow up believing that their needs are secondary to the needs of others which can lead to very unhealthy and dangerous relationship patterns.
Individual and group therapy are great resources for siblings of children with special needs. In these settings they have the opportunity to confront the emotions beneath their challenging behaviors, develop a healthier sense of self and others, challenge distorted cognitions with healthier ones, feel heard, and connect with others who are on journeys similar to their own.
As a therapist, I find it an honor to create this space. And just simply as me, I have a very special place in my heart for these special siblings.
If you would like to contact Erika, you may call her at 619-272-6858 x701 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org