Ways to Help Special Needs Siblings Thrive – Part 1

As some of you know, I love of Grey’s Anatomy. What draws me to the show is the genuine, honest, flawed, and intense characters. One, in particular, has captured my empathy: Alex Karev. He’s a bully. And he’s a great doctor who loves kids (but, of course, in secret). He’s a damaged soul from a broken home. And a generous man who loves his wife until she nearly died of cancer.

He’s broken, but brilliant. Bruised, but loving. And I relate so much to his character.

In the last episode, the dark, gritty, “I don’t care about anything” side resurfaced in him suddenly. I watched his behavior and kept thinking What’s wrong with this guy? He’s made such strides – why can’t he just let himself connect with the people who love him?! Turns out it was because (soap opera alert!) his brother had a mental breakdown and tried to kill their sister, which precipitated Karev’s anger and the return of the “I don’t care, anyway” facade.

Rage exploded in my chest to watch him deal with the brokenness in his family. To see him like that. And then I realized why.

Because he personifies what could easily be my own daughters’ lives as adults. My two younger girls have older sisters whose mental health issues can  wreck havoc at home for hours at a time, even when we use our best therapeutic parenting.

How do I help them today, in order to keep them from isolating themselves from the world later as they deal with the classic sibling issues of family life with special needs?

1. Let them be themselves, instead of living in reaction to their sisters. They’re allowed to be mad, annoying, and have bad days. Hard to do because my older two are often impossible hard to live with. Of course I wish their sisters could be little angels because it gets very tiring! But that dynamic is not the fault of my younger girls, so I suck it up, find other ways to vent my own stress and frustrations, and let my two younger kids be kids. And be sibs of troubled kids… which means I let them grieve and be funky and regress, and whatever they need for the moment. Then I teach them a better way…

2. Teach them how to be resilient. How to manage stress. How to have good interpersonal boundaries, be attuned to their own needs, take breaks, develop empathy muscles, and otherwise be healthy when someone in their inner circle is very NOT healthy. It’s so important for life in general, and especially for life right now in the midst of what can be a very stressful family situation.

3. Schedule at least 30 minutes with each of the siblings alone every week. It’s worth the cost of a sitter or the hassle of coordinating with hubby to watch the other kids. During our mommy-times (as they call them), they can do whatever they want, as long as nobody gets hurt and they respect boundaries I place on the activity (ie, no you can’t rip my curtains during our play time!) This is one way they can be themselves and we can play together, which can be hard to do with emotionally challenging sisters in the house.

What kinds of things do you find helpful for raising a sibling of a more challenging child?

And keep an eye out for part two of this post… dealing with the internal struggle and decisions we face parenting siblings of special needs.

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