Helping Brothers and Sisters of Children with Special Needs
Caring for a child with special needs can take up a lot of time and energy, from going to appointments with various doctors, therapists, and social workers to handling one of the many daily outbursts, physical problems, or frustrating situations that never seem to stop. Despite this hectic schedule, parents must also recognize and attend to the needs of their other, typically developing children. It is important to remember that siblings of children with special needs deal with the same stress and anxiety as their parents. In fact, siblings are in each other’s lives from childhood through adult years, which means that long after parents and service providers are gone, it is often a sibling’s responsibility to care for a brother or sister with special physical, developmental, emotional, or mental-health needs.
Finding Peer Support
Providing plenty of opportunities for siblings to meet peers who also have brothers and sisters with special needs is perhaps the most important thing parents can do, according to Don Meyer, director of the Seattle-based Sibling Support Project, a “national effort dedicated to the interests of over six million brothers and sisters of people with special health, mental health, and developmental needs.” This can be as simple as setting up play dates or informal meetings with kids they already know. Or it may be something more structured, such as Sibshops, which are “opportunities for brothers and sisters of children with special health and developmental needs to obtain peer support and education within a recreational context,” according to the Sibshop website. Although Sibshops meetings or “events” are not therapy sessions, they address issues siblings of special needs children have in common. They also emphasize the contributions and sacrifices brothers and sisters of people with special needs make, all in a relaxed, recreational setting. The Sibshops model, which was started in 1990 and currently exists in all 50 states plus eight countries, uses games and content activities to encourage kids to share coping strategies, and also shows them that there are many other siblings just like them. For example, in one activity called “Dear Aunt Blabby,” siblings help answer made-up questions from kids sent to an advice columnist. These questions, says Meyer, address many of the issues Sibshops participants deal with on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, most siblings never meet other siblings like them, says Meyer. “Siblings are always getting the short end of the stick. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the chance to meet other peers,” he adds. Lois DeRusha, a parent support coordinator in Massachusetts, has seen firsthand the kind of positive impact sibling support groups can have. She runs a group for six- to 11-year-olds that focuses mainly on the child’s self-esteem, team-building and cooperation, and coping strategies. She is also the mother of four children, two of which have mental illnesses. In addition to the guidance she provides, her other two children have found further outlets for support. Lauren, DeRusha’s 16-year-old daughter, recently joined SibKids, an Internet listserv (operated by the Sibling Support Project and moderated by Meyer) that is specifically for young siblings of people with special needs. On SibKids, siblings are free to talk about whatever is on their minds, ask for tips from other kids like them, and offer feedback and suggestions to their peers.
YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN