Issues When One Has Special Needs:
Am I My Brother's Keeper?
By Gary Direnfeld, M.S.W.
between siblings is commonplace. Siblings vie for parental attention
as well as access to family resources such as the television, computer,
telephone and so on. However in families where there is a child
with special needs the impact on the other siblings can take on
virtue of a childs special needs, more attention and parental
and family resources are drawn to that child. This in and of itself
can set the stage for resentment or animosity with other siblings.
Further, additional responsibilities placed on the other siblings
for the direct care of the one with special needs can add to bad
feelings. The other siblings may surface questioning matters as,
Am I my brothers keeper?
the social work perspective, it is often cited that children should
not take on parental duties. When this does occur we refer to such
children as parentified. The connotation is negative
and the concern is that the child may have responsibilities beyond
their ability to handle causing them to face ongoing failure or,
it may build resentment when their burdens feel greater than observed
in their friends.
truth is though that having a sibling with a special need can provide
remarkable opportunity for the other siblings to learn lessons in
humanity. Far from the concern for negative implications, positive
outcomes include sensitivity to others and a remarkable ability
to contribute to the betterment of society be it at the local community
level on behalf of disadvantaged populations, or the larger community
through social action and social policy.
such, to be ones brothers keeper is not inherently bad
or good. The outcome will more likely depend on the temperament
of the child and how the needs of the child with special needs are
managed in view of resources and the needs of the other siblings.
Strategies to facilitate the positive adjustment and support of
the other siblings include:
profound appreciation for their help and/or sacrifice: This is not
to say parents seek to spoil the other siblings so as to compensate,
but rather express verbally and through acts of affection their
appreciation for efforts towards the sibling with special needs.
Thank you can carry significant meaning even from parents
expectations behaviourally and emotionally: Parents
need to be sure that whatever they ask of the other siblings, it
is within their ability to provide. If asking one to look after
(baby-sit) another, make sure the child is emotionally comfortable.
It can be scary to be left at home at the best of time, let alone
with the responsibility of another.
in: Parents need to encourage the other siblings to talk about
family life. Some kids may need to be drawn out for such discussions.
The purpose is to help them express their feelings. The challenge
for the parents is not to correct or solve problems per se, but
to actively listen such that they feel heard. Simply having a voice
and expressing a voice is therapeutic. Siblings should not be denied
their feelings, which will change over the course of life and experience.
special time: Just as parents of children with special needs
require respite, the other siblings require similar respite but
in the company and attention of their parents. This recharges their
emotional reserves, enabling them to return refreshed with a positive
is nothing unreasonable about having expectations on siblings to
participate or help in the care of another sibling. This is a function
of the situation and a fact of their life. Emotional adjustment
will in part depend on how the situation is approached and managed.
The above strategies can help.
Direnfeld, M.S.W. is a social worker in Ontario, Canada, and an
expert on child development, parent-child relations, marital and
family therapy, custody and access recommendations. Services include
counselling, mediation, assessment, assessment critiques and workshops.
For more information, visit www.yoursocialworker.com
or call (905) 628-4847.