Five Tips to Support Siblings in Special needs Families.

When Gemma Knowles was diagnosed with ADHD, dyspraxia and autism when she was ten years old, there was one thing that she will always remember – the support of her brother, Phillip, then 12 years old. “Phillip used to worry about me “ said Gemma.

When he caught me crying about it all one evening, he sat on my bed and said “Gem, if you feel upset or worried, or anyone bullies you because of your condition – you just come to me!”

Naturally when one member of the family is diagnosed with a condition, it’s likely to affect the rest of the family in different ways. For Phillip, Gemma’s meltdowns were embarrassing, he tried not to show it but at only 12 years old, of course he will be embarrassed. It was also difficult for him to concentrate on homework when his sister was having a meltdown.

When you have a child who has special needs, you are naturally going to have to spend more time with that child, taking him or her to hospital or GP’ s appointments and its obvious that the other sibling/s will suffer.

Phillip suffered terribly,” said his Mum, Diane, “If Gemma had been diagnosed with a physical condition, there would have been much more support for her siblings. There are a lot of support groups and different options for the other siblings, but with mental illness, or special needs, there are a lot less, yet mental health statistics are zooming upwards now”.

When one child in a family is diagnosed with a condition that is going to consume a lot of the parent’s time, it is a dead certainty that the siblings WILL struggle in one way or another, depending on their personality, their age and maturity, their strength and resilience. Some children can take care of themselves, and almost tell themselves that they don’t need attention. Some start playing up and being naughty and angry, obviously to gain their parent’s attention, (negative attention is just as good as positive!) Some children will simply try and be extra well behaved and help their parents as much as possible.

Of course, having to compete for attention can lead to the sibling being resentful later on. Even a supportive sibling has his limits!

Here are five tips to help you, help your child to cope with the difficulties that arise with having a sibling with special needs.

  1. Communicate: make sure that you communicate with the whole family right from the beginning. It is important for parents to explain very clearly what is going on to siblings and answer any questions they may have. They may think they may have caused their brother or sister’s condition and feel very guilty. They could feel that they aren’t as important because they are not getting the same attention. So, communicate as much as you can.
  2. Listen: really listen to the other sibling’s concerns. Let them know that you love all the children equally. Listen to the sibling’s worries and concerns. They may be concerned that THEY might catch whatever their brother or sister has! Don’t use the medical terms but just explain that Jonny’s brain perhaps doesn’t work in the same way as the rest of the family and his behaviour may at times be a little bit frightening but he’s not doing it on purpose.
  3. Time for each child: Make sure you set aside a certain amount of time for each child. More important than this is to make sure that you do it on a regular basis. It’s no good doing it for three days then letting it slide. Your child needs to be able to know he’s got that time with you and he will be looking forward to it. Try and give each sibling good positive reinforcement for the things they do. Phillip said “I would hear mum or dad saying to Gem something like ‘Oh wow! Gemma that’s amazing – well done!’ when it was just something really trivial and if I did something it was just ‘Oh that’s good!”
  4. Treat all the children the same:  some parents think that because they are giving most of their time to the special – needs child, they should perhaps be more lenient with the other children. This should not be the case – all the children need to be disciplined just the same. The special-needs child may need a different type of discipline at times but he or she still needs to know the difference between right and wrong.
  5. What the siblings will learn. The siblings of a special-needs child will learn empathy and how to be patient and tolerant to others.

Diane, Phillip and Gemma’s mum said: “After Gemma was diagnosed, Phillip became much more understanding and he is so patient now. I watched him with some of his friends recently and he was being so kind and empathic, when one of them, who had behavioural problems was playing up. The experience of having a sister with special needs has helped him in many ways.”

On one of the therapy programmes I run for siblings of children with a special needs child in the family, I focus on any anxiety the child may be feeling and aim to find out if they are placing any blame on themselves for anything. Often the child will say things like “But I don’t think mummy loves me as much as Jonny because she never tells him off and I get told off for the littlest thing!”

At the end of the day, each family with a special – needs child will have different dynamics. Children with different ages, different levels of maturity, and perhaps a totally different environment. Some may be a single parent family which of course is extra hard, some may have several siblings – other just the one. However, whatever it is – if you follow those five tips, I am sure your other children will feel loved, cared for and will certainly grow up to be very understanding of others with mental health issues and special needs.

For further information on how I help children with siblings who have special needs but are struggling themselves – please contact me at:

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