Siblings. It can be a tough gig. Sharing hand-me-downs, bedrooms and nits. And are we all doomed by birth order anyway? My own experience is consistent with the research.

I’m living proof of the bossy oldest child who pairs up with another bossy oldest. Then, having practised on three other children, my parents predictably gave my youngest brother far more freedom than I ever had at the same age. No fair! Then, of course, there were two in the middle, sandwiched between us, with all the challenges of being centrists. Birth order – you just have to grin and bear it.

Through the uncertainties and challenges of growing up, one thing I never doubted was that our parents loved us, harangued us and chided us all equally. I don’t remember ever feeling that one child was more favoured than another.

Likewise, we four were fairly democratic in our love-hate relationships – teasing, pummelling and just plain ignoring each other reasonably evenly. We grew up with the usual amount of falling out between siblings, making us into the well-balanced adults we are today.


Family democracy

However, put a special needs child into the mix, and like beetroot juice, it colours everything. Anything which creates a focus on one child over another, from elite sporting prowess to special needs, has the potential to create difficulties.

Everyone is affected by the needs of the special child. There’s no quarantine station where you can leave them for forty days while you get on with the rest of life. You’re on this ride together.  The nature and demands of the challenges might ebb and flow like the tide, but like the tides, they’re always there. And like waves eroding a beach, these challenges can incrementally wear away at family relationships if extra care isn’t taken to nurture and protect them.

So, what’s so hard about being the sibling of a special needs child?

The sibling of a special needs child can feel like they’re missing out on their parents’ time, love, or interest. They might see (or think) that allowances are made for the special needs sib that aren’t made for them. Consciously or subconsciously, they can feel jealous, resentful or neglected. It can seem as though the world revolves around the special needs sib.

Special needs sibs, especially those with high needs, can take up a huge amount of a care-giver’s time, as well as their physical and emotional energy. Children can clearly see a sib’s needs for hospital visits, doctors’ appointments, time with therapists, participation in focussed programmes. This doesn’t negate the fact that they too need their parents or caregivers, and all these other visits mean time and attention away from them.

If the special needs sib is the oldest (as in our case), everyone else usually ends up trailing along, wherever and whenever you go. Like juggling your good china, you just have to keep everything going, because dropping it isn’t an option.

Sometimes, siblings keep their feelings to themselves, not wanting to burden their parents with yet more to manage. Everything seems okay, while resentment or hurt simmers away under the surface. If children feel left out, for whatever reason, it can take a toll on their relationship with their special needs sib, with their parents and on their mental health.

Then there are the sibs with special needs which aren’t physically obvious, but who can be just as mentally and emotionally draining for their other sibs. For example, bearing the brunt of their meltdown, or being regarded as “collateral damage” in a situation where the parent is the target, is hard yakka.

When wrestling with their challenges using their own unique way of thinking, a special needs sib can be just as nasty as, say, the kid at school who pushed all their buttons that day.  It’s confusing. Their other sibs can think, “If my brother or sister loves me, why are they treating me like last night’s broccoli?”

As an adult, I often wish myself anywhere else but in the meltdown moment. So if I’m finding it hard, what about my kids? As parents and caregivers, I think we need to safeguard our children’s relationships with each other, as well as nurturing our own with them.

And don’t forget the social justice police, monitoring the balance of familial fairness.

“It’s not fair!”

“No, darling. I know it doesn’t seem fair that we’re not making your brother do his homework/music practice/chores. Yes sweetheart, I can see you find it hard that we’re making you tidy your room while we need stilts to navigate your sister’s.

“And why can he watch films on his computer until midnight when we enforce your screen time limits? Well, where do I start…”

There are many reasons for making these allowances, but explaining them mightn’t be appropriate or effective. Deep down, you know they have a point. It’s not fair. Life’s not fair. But we’re in it for the long haul, and you have to pick your battles. In any case, emotion usually trumps logic.

Another thing siblings might have to deal with is comments or questions from others about their sibling. Some people can be unkind, some understanding. It’s all an extra layer of emotional complexity for that child to negotiate.

So, with three out of our four having autism-related (and other) “special needs”, how do we approach the “sibling” issue? There’s no magic formula. It’s a constantly evolving approach, depending on the children involved, the different levels of maturity, the context and so on. It involves patience, persistence, love, creativity, willingness to lay aside preconceptions of what we “should” do as parents and openness to the needs of each child.

Here are some key things we try to keep in mind.

  1. Don’t assume there’s no issue

The sibling/s without the special needs might seem to be cruising along without a care. But they could also be like a swan, apparently gliding effortlessly over the water while paddling furiously underneath. We check in with them regularly, trying to be alert to small signals. A meteorologist looks at wind currents, air pressure, temperature, cloud patterns – multiple things to help forecast the weather. If we don’t do likewise, a storm will break that we haven’t even have noticed brewing.

  1. Acknowledge that sometimes things don’t seem fair

It’s harsh, but life isn’t fair. Watch the news for five seconds. We don’t try to pretend that things aren’t hard sometimes. But we need to find a way to get through the unfairness without dwelling on it.

We’ve been open in acknowledging to our kids that sometimes things don’t seem fair at the minute, but we have to meet the needs of all our kids where they are at that moment. We can’t wave a magic wand, but we can try and work out how to get through the tough times together.

Things mightn’t be equal, but we try to make them equitable.

  1. Paint the bigger picture

Sometimes we have to step out of the moment and look at the bigger picture. We hope that a child who feels they’re missing out might get a different perspective if they understand the reasons behind our choices – whether it’s not enforcing the homework routine or seeming to overly reward what might seem like a minuscule positive action.

We try to acknowledge that obstacles are rarely overcome quickly. We have to try not to sweat the small stuff. This is easier said than done. The small stuff is often the foundation for the bigger stuff.

  1. Thanks for understanding!

We thank our kids for being understanding of a special needs sib, and for making whatever sacrifice a particular moment or period of time entailed. It’s like the flip side of acknowledging that sometimes things aren’t fair – thanking them for just getting on and dealing with it and being open in recognising what this involved.

  1. Make an extra effort when possible

How to express this? We make a big effort to support the interests of all our children, but are especially conscious of trying to support the one without special needs in his particular interests. It doesn’t “make up” for the tough times, but it does demonstrate that we value his interests and understand his needs as well. I hope.

  1. We’re in this as a family

We recognise that sometimes the special needs sibs do have to “come first”. However, if we all work together to get through the tough times, and practise love, kindness and patience, we’ll all benefit in the end.

We remind the child without special needs that he can talk to us any time about how he feels, and that it’s ok to speak to someone else if he doesn’t want to share with us. We acknowledge that there are times he’s scared, upset or worried about his siblings’ behaviour and tell him it’s perfectly okay to feel this way, or to feel upset at what’s going on. We’re only human, after all.

It’s a constant balancing act. We don’t always get it right. However, hopefully if we can use some strategies to help all our kids feel equally loved and valued – even if this doesn’t work out exactly in minutes and dollars spent (!) – then we’re on the right track.

Until next time, Happy Wombatting!

Often organisations that deal with special needs children, or children facing illness also offer resources to siblings (eg. Canteen, Amaze).