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What About Me?

By Joyce Cattani, Special Education Specialist

There are 2.5 million students who attend public schools in New York. Of that number, roughly 476,000, between the ages of 3-21, receive special education services.

Many things change when a family enters the strange new world of special education. They end up with a new set of responsibilities to help them manage their lives. They need to learn how to work with the special education teachers and other specialists who educate their children. Then there is the whole system of special educations laws and language that is new and frightening. Often parents can connect with other parents and offer support.

But there is another part of the family dynamic that is often overlooked. Many children with disabilities have brothers and sisters. They may have issues as well. The truth is that a sibling’s role is still the least talked about.

Family life as many know it is different. It can seem to the most capable of children that their world now revolves around their disabled sibling.

Siblings often have many different and even conflicting feelings which they are not able to verbalize. They know that they are supposed to love their sibling but end up confused and resentful. For example, mom and dad may have to spend less time with them and more with their sibling. They feel jealous but don’t really know why.

Sometimes siblings are expected to care of their brother or sister. This can lead to resentment because they are unable to do things or go places because of their sibling. They are worried and scared about what the future will hold and will they be expected to provide lifelong care for their sibling. They put pressure on themselves to be good, to not ask for things so as not to be a burden to their parents.

Many of these feelings are below the surface and even the best parents may not recognize them.

Siblings of children with special needs have special needs themselves. Parents often experience the same feelings as their non-disabled child but on a different scale. Sometimes the feelings can be so intense or disruptive, that a child may need professional counseling to help them cope.

Meeting and talking with other kids going through the same thing can also be very helpful. It’s important for them to know that there is another kid in their world who really knows what it is like.

Additionally, parents need to find ways to validate their non-disabled children’s feelings while trying to maintain an emotional balance of their own. Let them explore those feelings. When parents tune in to the individual needs of each child in the family, they can help ease the difficulties.

It’s not all bad. While having a special needs sibling presents challenges, it also comes with opportunities. Everyday situations often lead to creative problem solving and personal growth. Siblings may be more patient and empathic for others. They appreciate the small achievements as well as the disappointments and frustrations that their sibling experiences. There is a kind of strength that develops from managing all of this. Children who have disabled siblings can gain a greater appreciation of the value of different kinds of people and become more understanding of human differences.

Siblings have a unique bond with each other. Having a sibling with a disability impacts this bond and will impact each sibling differently. To better understand and support them, it’s important to acknowledge their unique struggles. Together we will always stand up for our special needs siblings and try to make the world more accepting and understanding place for them.

One of the best moments of my day is when my son interreacts with his sister. There is a sense of connecting when they discuss their days that I never thought I would hear. Sometimes they even bicker and tease each other and that’s good too. They wouldn’t have it any other way.