Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused
By Lauren Solotar, Ph.D., ABPP
Sibling jealousy is a difficult reality for many families, and can be more complicated for the brothers and sisters of children with special needs. The fact is that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disorders require extra attention from their parents. This usually comes at the expense of the time available for other children in the family. Occasionally, typically developing children may feel jealous of their sibling with special needs.
Sibling jealousy can manifest in a variety of ways. A once compliant and agreeable child may become argumentative and combative and may begin to act out to get his or her share of attention – even if it is negative attention. In some cases, these frustrated children may even become verbally or physically abusive. On the other hand, some siblings of children with special needs may become overly helpful, feel guilty about their own good health, and try to make their parents happy by being “perfect” children. All of these behaviors are cause for concern.
What can parents do?
First, listen to your child’s concerns. Ask her to share her feelings with you. Let her know that it is OK to feel angry if and when her sibling gets more attention. It’s important for typically developing children to understand that their needs and feelings are just as important as those of their siblings with special needs.
Make your typically developing child an ally. Take him into your confidence and explain his sibling’s condition and needs in language he can understand. Although you do not want to make him feel inappropriately responsible for his sibling, it may be helpful to enlist his assistance in the family goal of helping your child with special needs become as self-sufficient as possible. Helping this child learn new skills and function as independently as possible should be a team effort for all members of the family.
Do your typically developing children have chores around the house? If so, don’t let your child with special needs off the hook – make sure he or she has appropriate chores as well. Try to make household duties a cooperative rather than a competitive effort. After the work is done, you can play together. Reward your children with a game, a special television program, a hike, or a picnic – an activity the whole family can enjoy together.
While most parents acknowledge that it is impossible to treat all children equally, you should try to be as fair as possible about giving individual attention to each of your children. It’s a good idea to try and spend some time alone with each child every day – even if it is just a few minutes.
In some instances, the feelings and emotions resulting from sibling jealousy can get out of hand and cause problems that require professional family counseling. Watch your typically developing child for signs of depression or anxiety, disturbances in appetite or sleep patterns, or headaches or stomachaches that continue for several weeks. These symptoms may be indicative that he or she is in need of professional support.
With your encouragement and support, your typically developing child can become a more loving and understanding person because she has a brother or sister with autism or another developmental disability.
Dr. Lauren Solotar, the President and Chief Executive Officer of May Institute, has specialized in child and adolescent psychology.