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Parenting Siblings of Special Needs Children

By Ruth Mortimer

Siblings of Children with Disabilities Have Special Needs Too
Siblings of special needs children may find their brother or sister challenging. However, with informed guidance, the sibling relationship can be strong and rewarding.

Indeed, there can be a profound effect upon sibling relationships. For example, the younger sibling of a child with an intellectual disability may assume the role of an older sibling, helping and watching out for her brother or sister with special needs. If this situation is not monitored, it may well interfere with social development.

Siblings’ Feelings
The siblings of children with special needs can feel embarrassed, resentful, guilt jealous, sad, and feeling different from their peers. They may not want to invite friends home or be seen in public places with the sibling. Children with autism, in particular, can be very challenging. Tantrums, or “melt downs”, physical aggression, and running off, are not uncommon behaviours.

Share in the Joy of Living with a Special Needs Child

On the other hand, a special needs children can bring great joy. Each new step they take is a cause for celebration. Furthermore, siblings of these children often say that they have learned tolerance which has helped them to become better people. They appreciate the privilege of having a brother or sister with a disability.

Understanding and Acceptance of Disabilities

The familiar adage “we can choose our friends, but not our family” is a reminder that people need to accept their situations and work with the difficulties in the most positive way they can. To enable this, siblings need a sound understanding of the other child’s disabilities. While some disabilities are straightforward to understand, such as a visual impairment, those of a neurological or psychological origin – such as a developmental disability – require a greater degree of explanation and comprehension.

Guidelines for Parenting Special Needs Siblings

For young children:
1. Keep the explanation simple and age-appropriate.
2. Ask them what they understand is wrong with their sibling and work from there.
3. Show understanding when they are jealous, ensuring you give sufficient attention.
4. If they are afraid of their sibling’s behaviour, give comfort and talk through these issues. Find things they can do safely together. Promoting these activities can also strengthen their relationship.

With older children:
1. Rectify any misconceptions they have about the disability.
2. Give them reading material appropriate to their level of understanding.
3. Talk through their concerns, such as whether the disability is genetic, or whether they are expected to care for their sibling when you have passed on.
4. Explain what provisions you have made for their brother or sister.
5. If necessary, get a trained counselor psychologist to talk things over with an older child or teenager.
6. Regularly check out their feelings; don’t just wait for them to tell you.
7. Ensure that your child is aware that the discipline of and the responsibility for the special needs child is the duty of the parents.
8. They should be free to follow their dreams and not limit their careers because of their special needs sibling.
9. Show them ways they can help and show your appreciation.
10. Recognize they have their own individual needs.
11. They are also very special and you love them.

These simple guidelines can promote the healthy psychosocial development of the sibling. Remember, living with a child with a disability can be a privilege and a great joy.


Harris, S.L. & Glassberg, B.A. Siblings of Children with Autism: A Guide for Families. Methesda: Woodbine House, 2003.

©2008 Ruth Mortimer. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Ruth Mortimer is from Palmerston North, New Zealand. She is a mother of two sons, the younger of whom is autistic. Owing to the challenges of raising a child with special needs, she decided to do freelance writing from home. She has a doctorate in psychology, along with an endorsement in clinical psychology. She has carried out qualitative research on women’s health, retirement, and sexual abuse. She enjoys reading, walking, making glass mosaic pieces, chess and a bit of gardening when there is time.