Dealing with differences among children

Published 11:47 am Wednesday, April 10, 2013

If you have multiple children, you’re bound put one child’s needs ahead of the other at times, doling out your attention to each one in turn, much like balancing a bunch of plates spinning on poles. Most parents worry about shortchanging children in a multi-child family, but what if one of your children has special needs, such as a physical disability or a developmental delay? Does having a child with special needs cause you to neglect your other children?

As much as we might worry, the available data suggests that many children do just fine growing up with a special needs sibling. Nevertheless, if your family is in this situation, there are things you should consider to ensure that all of your children adjust well.

Which children should we worry about? It appears that children whose sibling has an intellectual or physical disability adjust the best. If the special needs child has a disability that causes behavior problems, however, (such as tantrums in autism or extreme impulsivity in severe ADHD), the siblings are more likely to have trouble coping.


Contrary to what we might assume, many children are not resentful, angry or embarrassed by their “different” siblings. In fact, many families find that children can be remarkably sensitive to their sibling’s needs. These kind and sensitive children sometimes face a different challenge — knowing their own limits.

If you have a child with a disability, start by talking to your other children in simple, age-appropriate terms, explaining what is different about the child with special needs. Explain how the other child thinks and learns in matter-of-fact terms, terms that convey acceptance of the child just as he is. This helps children accept the differences as a routine part of life in your family — not better or worse, just different.

In addition to teaching your children what to expect, teach them what to tell others. Letting your child know what kinds of questions he might face (“Why does your brother look like that?” or “Why does your sister act that way?”) helps them avoid being caught off guard.

If a sibling has a condition that is obvious to others, people will ask questions, some of which, frankly, will be stupid or hurtful. Give your child a brief, standard answer that explains things simply while maintaining your family’s privacy. Whether you choose to label the specific problem for strangers or to quiet them instead with a simple “that’s how God made him” is up to you. Let your child know that he can always talk to you if he doesn’t know how to handle nosy or ignorant people.

Furthermore, like parents, siblings need to understand the disabled child’s needs, what treatment might look like or how it will affect family life, and what the future could hold. Sometimes you won’t have all the answers, and some children might need a support system outside the family. Brief counseling or a disability-specific support group can help children understand their unique family structure. Having the support of peers and adults outside the family can prevent siblings from trying to take on too much, becoming depressed, or acting out when they feel ignored. It can also give them other children to talk to who really get where they’re coming from.

Finally, as parents, we hate to imagine leaving our children, but the reality is that one day, we will be gone. For families in which one child might need long-term care, siblings should factor into the plans. Even if they aren’t going to be designated caregivers, your adult children need to understand matters such as power of attorney and guardianship if those apply to your situation. Consultation with your local disabilities advocacy group or protective services agency can help you anticipate what areas to cover. For more information and resources, check out The Sibling Leadership Network at


Tamara Stevens, MA, is a staff psychologist at Washington Pediatrics. She may be reached by calling 946-4134.