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Caring for Siblings of Kids With Disabilities

Medically reviewed by: Carolyn Sewell-Roberts, LCSW

As a parent, you want to give equal attention to all of your children. But when parenting a child with special health care needs, that can be hard. It may feel like there's never enough of your attention to go around — and your other kids might begin to feel left out.

It can help to understand what your typically developing child or teen might be thinking and feeling.

By answering questions in an age-appropriate way and being open and honest, you can help ease worries, clear up any confusion, and maybe even give your other kids a chance to help out. Kids who feel understood, loved, and secure about their place in the family can thrive — and the bond between siblings can grow.

Here's what might come up with kids at different ages and stages of development.

How Can I Help My Preschooler?

  • Set aside time together. Preschoolers often feel that everything is about them and what they want. So it can be hard to get them to understand why a sibling might need more time with you. It helps to set aside one-on-one time with your preschooler. Just a few minutes spent playing ball or letting your little one "help" you in the kitchen at mealtime can provide the mommy or daddy time that your child needs.
  • Explain honestly and simply. When kids ask about their sibling's abilities, explain the condition using simple language in a way they can understand. Use real words, like "cerebral palsy" instead of "boo-boo." This way, they’re not overly worried about everyday bumps and bruises. Say something like, "Your brother has trouble walking because he has cerebral palsy." If your child asks, "What is cerebral palsy?" explain in simple terms that it's a condition that makes it harder to do the same things as other kids.
  • Offer reassurance. Kids this age are "magical thinkers" — so, the drink poured at the tea party is truly hot and the monsters under the bed are very real. When kids have a sibling with special health care needs, this type of thinking can mean that they worry that a disability is an illness, like the common cold. Reassure your child that they can't "catch" a condition like cerebral palsy, and that nothing either child did caused the condition — it is no one's fault.

How Can I Help My School-Age Child?

  • Speak in age-appropriate ways. Ask kids get older, they’ll want to understand more about a sibling’s condition. Don’t be afraid to answer questions. For example, for questions about a sibling who has trouble getting around, you might give a little more info: "His legs don't work because of his cerebral palsy." The next question might be, "Will he ever walk?," to which you need to answer honestly: "I don't know if he will, but we're going to try to help him do that. That's why he has therapy."
  • Make memories together. Your child might be sad or worried about their sibling's health. But playing together and enjoying each other's company can help. Encourage your child to read books to their sibling, build block towers together, and do craft activities with fingerpaint or clay.
  • Role play explaining to others. Kids this age start having to explain their sibling's condition to their peers. Some friends might ask rude questions or even engage in bullying behavior such as name-calling, which can leave your child feeling embarrassed, angry, or guilty. Help your child practice things to say. For example, if someone asks, "What's wrong with your sister?" your child can simply say: "She has cerebral palsy." Or if a classmate uses an unkind term to describe the sibling with a disability, let your other kids know that as hard as it is, they must not act out in anger. Instead, help them explain the situation: "It's harder for my sister to learn new things than it is for you or me, but that doesn't make it OK to say mean things about her."
  • Handle sibling rivalry. Sibling rivalry also builds at this age, so don't be surprised if kids act jealous of their brother or sister. After all, they see their sibling getting extra attention or being excused from chores. Say that this is the way it has to be. Remind your child that they have other opportunities that their sibling does not. Fair does not always mean equal.

How Can I Help My Teen?

  • Set reasonable responsibilities. You might rely on your teen to babysit or help more with chores around the house. Teens might feel pressure to take on more responsibility than they should at this age. Don’t ask too much. Make certain responsibilities, such as babysitting, a choice. This will help teens feel that they have control over how much they help out. For example: "It would be great if you could watch your sister, but if you want to go out with your friends, that’s OK too.”
  • Don’t ask for “perfection.” Typically developing children sometimes feel extra pressure to be perfect so that their parents don't have to worry about them. Don’t set unrealistic goals when it comes to schoolwork or extracurricular activities.
  • Encourage safe exploration. Teens are struggling with their independence from parents. And a teen who has a sibling with a disability also may struggle with the idea of life apart from that sibling. Let your teen know that wanting more independence and experiencing more of the world is normal, healthy, and encouraged, within safe limits.
  • Have a plan for the future. As teens near adulthood, they might start to worry about the future, and wonder who is going to help care for the sibling once they've moved out — or if something happens to you. Reassure your teen that whatever the future holds, you will create a plan that will work for everyone in the family.

How Can I Help Kids Handle Strong Emotions?

Some siblings roll with the punches and don't let uch bother them, while others are more sensitive and take things to heart. These kids need healthy ways to work through their emotions. Writing in a journal, being physically active, or doing creative arts like dance or music are good ways to handle strong emotions.

If you notice changes in your child's sleep routine, appetite, mood, or behavior, it could be a sign of anxiety, depression, or another problem. If this happens, get help from a mental health provider for your child.

Medically reviewed by: Carolyn Sewell-Roberts, LCSW
Date reviewed: October 2021