Siblings of children with learning challenges and other special needs

by Kathy Kuhl
When one of your children needs most of your attention, how do you take care of their siblings? Whether your child has learning challenges, medical issues, or other special needs, one of the many challenges you face is how to make time to care for your other children. How can you stay aware of their needs?

Equal time?

In crisis or as we deal with great needs, we have to let some duties slide. When my son was young, reading was painful and slow for him. We could tell he was bright by his questions and insights. So we struggled to find better ways to teach him. His academics were a big concern to us.

What about his sister? She plugged along, uncomplaining, often working independently and above grade level. His big sister was concerned for him. She agreed that he needed more of my time than she did.

Being fair

Fair does not mean equal. My friend Melinda Boring told her children, “‘Being fair’ means giving you what you need when you need it. It would be unfair to treat you all the same.” (Melinda is a speech pathologist who homeschooled three children, two with ADHD. See below for her book and website.)

Carol Barnier agrees. In her excellent article, “The Myth of Equal Time,” she explains how she learned to stop feeling guilty about this inequality. It began when she heard a panel of homeschoolers raising children with disabilities take the question, “How do you give your other children equal time?” Carol quoted their answer:

“‘You don’t give equal time to all your children. You can’t. You have to let go of the notion. It’s not realistic or’ (get ready for this one) ‘even desirable.'”

How can inequality be good?

As a Christian, Carol believed that God ruled her circumstances. So she began to trust that God knew what He was doing when he put all of her children in her particular family. For Christians, God’s sovereignty is a comfort in such circumstances. She goes on to say that as she pondered, she began to see the benefits for her children who don’t have learning challenges. Here are a few:

  • Better awareness of others’ needs
  • Improved ability to entertain themselves
  • Better understanding of people who act and learn differently

For more benefits, see her article, linked below.

A recent New York Times article (also linked below) reaches similar conclusions.

Siblings of kids with challenges have unique needs

Yet it is important not to stop here. Siblings of children with special needs–including learning challenges, medical conditions, and chronic illnesses–face their own problems. These siblings may feel:

  •  “I don’t want to be any trouble.” I’ve known students who were pressuring themselves to be no trouble to their parents, because they had siblings who needed lots of special attention. That sounds noble. It is certainly kind of them to want to spare their parents more worry. But if the undiagnosed students are having trouble and trying to pretend they are not, that adds to their stress. It may also keep them from getting help that they need.
  • Guilt, frustration, or jealousy. At times, they may at times feel slighted by getting less attention than their sisters or brothers who have learning disabilities or other special needs. They may feel guilty or selfish for wanting more of their parents’ attention. They may feel jealous, and at the same time guilty about feeling jealous. At times, these kids may sometimes feel embarrassed by or frustrated with their sibling with special needs, especially if that sibling behaves conspicuously in public or when friends visit. They may feel confused about loving their brother or sister and at the same time feeling deeply annoyed by them.
  • Lifelong responsibility.  If children have siblings with more severe disabilities, they need to come to terms with their long-term responsibility for those siblings. It affects who they marry, where they live, and more. Much as they love their siblings, they feel this responsibility. Children who have siblings with less severe disabilities may also wonder how well those siblings will do in life, and if they will need long-term support.

Doug Mazza and Steve Bundy address these concerns in one chapter of their book for fathers, Another Kind of Courage: God’s Design for Fathers of Families Affected by Disability. They discuss how these children need to feel free to discuss these matters with you at appropriate times. Below is a link to my review of their book.

Ideas from my favorite speaker on sibling needs

Jackie Mills-Fernald is an expert on helping siblings of kids with special needs. She has a sibling with special needs, and she is director of Access Ministry, McLean Bible Church, in McLean, Virginia.

Along with programs for folks with all kinds of disabilities, including summer camps, this church pays attention to the needs of the whole family. They provide a program just for siblings called “Soaring Over Seven.” Kids report how great it is to be with other kids who have a sibling with disabilities. They understand.

I’ve learned so much when I heard Jackie speak on the topic of siblings. So I asked her what resources she recommends. Here they are: “is the first national program dedicated to the life-long and ever-changing concerns of millions of brothers and sisters of people with special health, developmental, and mental health concerns.

“We’ve published books for and about brothers and sisters, host online groups for teen and adult siblings, and presented workshops on sibling issues internationally and in every state.

“However, we’re best known for helping local communities start Sibshops—lively peer support groups for school-age brothers and sisters of kids with special needs.”

What are your favorite resources?

Here are a few of mine:

I’ve previously reviewed Heads Up Helping! Teaching Tips and Techniques for Working with ADD, ADHD, and other Children with Challenges, by Melinda Boring.

Melinda’s website is

Carol Barnier’s article “The Myth of Equal Time,” published in Crosswalk.

Here is my review of Another Kind of Courage by Doug Mazza and Steve Bundy. Doug and Steve have children with special needs. They are also the president and vice-president of Joni and Friends (JAF). JAF offers family camps among other resources for siblings.

New York Times article on “Growing Up With a Disabled Sibling.”

What about yours? Please share favorite resources in the comments section below. Thank you.

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