Seek out respite opportunities, and do not feel guilty for taking advantage of them, along with other members of the family. Your spouse and your typically developing children may occasionally need to experience quality family time together without the distractions or disruptions that may ensue in the company of a child with a disability. Do not feel guilty over having family time without this child. You are not excluding him by doing so.
Make sure to give each of your typically developing children an opportunity to have one-on-one time with you as often as you realistically can. This will reassure them that their well being as your child is just as important to you. This does not have to be a formal occasion. It could be as simple and natural as accompanying you on a trip to the store, or driving them to a friend’s house, as long as it provides the two of you with an opportunity to talk in a meaningful and private way.
Do not commit your children to responsibilities for their sibling with a disability without discussing it with them first. Try to minimize the impact of their sibling’s disability on their normal everyday lives.
Have expectations for your typically developing children that are appropriate for their age, temperament and level of understanding. While they may not have a disability, they are still children. Expecting them to always be understanding of their sibling’s behavior, or always be the one to give in after a fight, is unfair and unrealistic. Give them permission to act their ages.
Set realistic expectations for the behavior of your child with a disability, such as giving them responsibility for minor household chores according to their ability, and make it clear that you expect him to meet those expectations. That will minimize resentment among his siblings.
Help your typically developing children find peers who can relate to what they are going through. Participation in a siblings support group can be particularly beneficial.
Address the concerns of your typically developing children about the future. Inform them of any major decisions involving your child with a disability, including any plans for a residential placement, or to send the child to a summer camp for special needs children. Listen to their suggestions and feelings, but make it clear that you as the parent will make the final decisions with the best interests of the whole family in mind.
Growing up in a family with a sibling who has a disability clearly presents many challenges to a typically developing child. Yet those children who can rise to that challenge often emerge with extraordinary qualities. The lessons they learn from that experience while growing up will enhance their sensitivity to the feelings of others, and give them a healthier perspective on what is truly important. This will surely enrich their outlook and relationships with others throughout their adult lives.
Tzivy Ross Reiter, LCSW, has written extensively about issues related to mental health and developmental disabilities. She is Assistant Director at Ohel Bais Ezra, whose services include Residential, Day Habilitation, Service Coordination, Residential Habilitation, Recreation and Respite Programs for Children and Adults with Disabilities. For more information, on Ohel Bais Ezra, please call 718-851-6300 or visit www.ohelfamily.org.