According to the U.S. Census, approximately 5% of children between the ages of 5 and 17 have a disability. The nature and severity of the disability varies, but for many parents, caring for a “special” child can consume considerably more time than caring for a “typical” child.
“Typicals” might naturally feel resentful because they get less attention. So how can parents create a family environment that gives every child a feeling of belonging and significance?
I interviewed several parents of special needs children and there was a common thread to their responses: they work to make sure that everyone’s needs are met, they expect their “typicals” AND their “specials” to contribute at the level of which they are capable, and they allow “typicals” to have their feelings without letting them negatively affect the overall positive family dynamic.
*Meeting all children’s needs: Some parents schedule one-on-one time with each child throughout the week. Others sign up for respite care when their “special” can’t be left alone, which frees them to focus undivided attention on their “typical.” The adult sibling of a Down’s Syndrome sister said, “My parents made me a part of the process by having me work with my sister on motor skills and flashcards. They emphasized that it was the entire family's job to help her have the best life possible, and I felt a lot of ownership in my role as one of her ‘teachers’.”
*Expecting “typicals” AND “specials” to contribute at their level of capability: One mother said, “We were always honest about our son’s disability and we expected him to do chores just like his brothers and sisters did, because he could.” Dr. Barry Prizant, author of Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism, emphasizes that we are all growing and developing, and it’s important for parents to see not only who their child is, but who their child can become. Expectations, tailored to the individual capabilities of each child, can help “specials” feel they’re contributing to the family and allow “typicals” to appreciate their sibling’s contribution.
*Allow “typicals” to have their feelings: When appreciation of a special sibling sours into resentment, parents can simply acknowledge the reality of life’s unfairness. One mother has told her “typical” teenager that she understands how he might feel angry that he has to do all of the chores. She tells him she is grateful that he is not only capable of doing the chores but also of expressing his anger at having to do them! His sister will never be able to do either. She honors his feelings, and after a little time with his resentment, he’s ok again.
The prevailing message from families with “specials” is that creating a sense of team provides the foundation of “we’re all in this together.” When parents have that message in place, then it becomes a matter of being creative, to ensure that each individual child feels they are important.
Eva Dwight offers parent, individual and couples coaching to adults and teens. For more information, go to www.evadwight.com.