As many parents already know, raising children is a challenge in the best of situations. For families who also have a special or high needs child, there are added worries and stresses to that challenge. And siblings in such families often feel as though they get lost in the shuffle amid diagnostic tests, therapy, specialist appointments and other areas pulling parents’ attention away from them.
In the case of children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), for example, siblings witness their brother or sister behaving differently or struggling in areas where they don’t. This can be very confusing and upsetting, so extra effort should be made to not only help siblings understand the situation, but also to guide them to where they fit in to help.
The following are a few suggestions in offering siblings comfort and guidance.
(1) Teach that feelings are natural: All children need to feel they can express and talk about their feelings, but it’s especially important in a household with a special needs child. Encourage siblings to talk, or to put words to what they are trying to say, so that bad feelings are not displaced on the wrong people or things.
(2) Give age appropriate information: It’s important for siblings to have accurate responses to the questions they may have about their sister or brother. It eases their worry. For younger children, it may be easiest to focus on feelings (“Joey is scared.”), or presented in a way they’ll understand (“It hurts Joey to hug.”) They also need to understand that their sibling is reacting to something else and isn’t angry with them.
In the case of children with SPD, younger siblings can become fearful of their sister or brother because one minute they seem fine, then the next moment an accidental unexpected touch or doing something out of turn can cause an explosion. A child with SPD can often behave violently during a sensory overload trigger tantrum and may even, unknowingly, take it out on siblings. In the end, it’s better to give as much information that siblings will understand than to say nothing at all.
(3) Let siblings visit the therapy or school programs: The point of this exercise is to meet some of the ‘special people’ that work with their brother or sister. They’ll get to see what exercises are done, what therapies are used and, maybe, even learn how they can help too. It’s all a part of learning and understanding about the disorder. Plus the sibling benefits from participating in the therapy process. Not only that, it teaches the sibling how to play with their sister or brother and even give them the courage to try new things.
(4) Welcome and encourage the sibling’s friends into the home: Many parents of SPD children avoid having social activities or playdates in the home. Not because they are embarrassed by the child’s behavior, but more because there is no way to know whether someone could be a trigger for SPD meltdowns. What’s important to realize is that it wouldn’t be fair to isolate or shelter the sibling this way. Siblings should be allowed to enjoy the company of their friends and feel that they can bring them over, even if the sister or brother may not like it.
It’s important for siblings to be around other children who may not be in the same situation. They need to see that not all kids they’ll be around will be as sensitive/sick/needy as their brother or sister. So encouraging friendships and playdates in the home is important.
If need be, following a few simple rules will keep everyone happy, especially for younger siblings:
- only have one friend over at a time.
- have activities to do inside and outside, in case the child with SPD becomes unnerved.
- try to keep an ‘inside voice’ rule.
- whenever possible, include the child with SPD.
After all, it’s important for children with SPD to make friends with all kids too. And what better way to practice than with their siblings’ friends? They’ve already been screened out by Mom!
(6) Wherever possible, let siblings resolve their own differences: Special needs or not, all children need to learn how to get along with others and to resolve their differences peacefully. One of the more difficult things for an SPD child to do is to remain calm. They have a tendency to fly off the handle rather quickly. But they still must learn how to get along with others.
For a child with SPD, it can be difficult to do things differently way than they’re used to. Teach them to stop, breath, then talk instead of freaking out right off the bat. Try to get them to put themselves into the other person’s shoes. It takes a great deal of patience and repetition but eventually it will catch on.
The awesome thing about children with SPD is that they learn by continuous repetition and by working things into their own routine. When play first starts, and everyone is happy, just make a short remark in passing like, “Okay, you guys. Now, what are the rules about the markers?” Even small interjections like that can encourage calmness.
One last reminder is that siblings crave to know that they have a their own place in the family circle and that place is essential to the overall functioning of the family unit. These little stepping stones parents put in place today will create true friendships that will last a lifetime.