By Erica Kearney, M.A., BCBA, LABA
If you are a parent, you are very aware that all children are unique and have different needs. Having two or more children can make parenting especially challenging because you often have to tweak your parenting style for each child. What works for one child does not always work for another. There are even more variables to take into consideration when one of your children has special needs.
Often the siblings of children with special needs have a difficult time understanding why their parents may treat their brother or sister differently. Some children may view the differences in approaches as “unfair.” It is extremely important for parents to address this concern with their children rather than ignoring it.
If you are raising children with very different needs, the following strategies may be helpful:
Educate your children about their differences.
From an early age children are taught that every person is different and unique. This holds true when comparing a child to her sibling who receives special services. For example, if the child with special needs is non-verbal and you are explaining to his sister, who is verbal, why he receives services, it is okay to say, “because he can’t talk like you and I can, he needs extra help to learn how” to help her understand the situation and become more accepting.
Accentuate the positive.
All children have their own personalities, talents, and interests. Your child with special needs may have a love of music, while his older sister is good at sports. One may be helpful with cooking chores, while the other prefers yard work. Be sure to acknowledge, praise, and encourage each child’s special interests and loveable qualities.
Discuss the similarities in your child rearing techniques for both.
As much as it is important to appreciate and discuss the differences between your children, it is also important to discuss the similarities. Sometimes it is difficult for a child to see that she is treated the same as her sibling with special needs. Pointing out the parallels in your treatment and expectations of your children may help eliminate or minimize the neurotypical child’s feelings of unfairness. For example, if she has chores to complete each week, be sure to highlight the fact that her brother has chores too. Even if they are less complex chores like putting his clothes in a hamper, it helps to mention that they both have responsibilities.
Spend one-on-one time with each child whenever you can.
Many children with special needs receive in-home services. These services are often perceived by the sibling as “fun times” that their brother/sister have but that they do not. Siblings can view this as unfair and become jealous of the extra attention their brother or sister is receiving. A great way to minimize the jealously is to ensure that the other children feel as though they get special fun times too. Sometimes it works well to establish a routine or set schedule for spending one-on-one time with each child.
As every parent can attest, raising children is one of life’s most challenging undertakings. Every child – whether he or she has developmental disabilities or not – has special needs. There is no “one size fits all” formula for success, but practicing patience, love, and understanding with each child will help promote family harmony.
Erica Kearney, M.A., BCBA, LABA, is Executive Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield, Mass. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 60 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates four schools for children with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit www.mayinstitute.org.