Parenting the Siblings of Children with Special Needs

Of the many stressors families experience today, perhaps one of the most challenging is having a child with special needs. This experience not only affects parents, but the siblings of children with special needs as well. These kids often voice concerns with regard to their brother or sister that can be important for parents to know.


One of the main concerns of a sibling to a child with special needs is the desire for the attention and time of their parent. It can be difficult for parents to manage medical appointments, therapy appointments, school meetings, regular household duties, time for their spouse and time for all their children – especially if both parents work. However, setting aside protected time for all members of the family, including typically-developing children, is imperative to ensure that their emotional needs are met. Try accomplishing this in simple ways, like cooking a meal together, watching movies or television together, taking a walk or reading stories before bedtime. These small actions can go a long way in making your typically-developing children feel loved and valued.


Feelings of guilt are frequently expressed by siblings of children with special needs. Siblings may feel guilty about not being the child with special needs. They may also feel guilty about other strong emotions they have toward their sibling, such as embarrassment, anger and jealousy. Be sure to create a safe environment for your typically developing children to share these feelings with you. Encourage them not to bottle these emotions inside as they can often lead to negative coping skills. If you think your child’s feelings are cause for concern, consider locating a qualified counselor to speak with him or her.


Some children feel acute embarrassment when they are in public with their special needs sibling, especially if their sibling acts or appears different than others. Try to go on family outings where all members can participate, or allow your typically-developing child to participate in different activities for a time and then rejoin the family. Creating an open environment in which your typically-developing child can freely communicate their thoughts and needs can greatly improve the family atmosphere. This approach can help kids feel that they are not obligated to participate in family events that include the special needs sibling, but instead do so because of a desire of their own.


Many siblings of children with special needs find themselves in the role of a caregiver. Some typically-developing children are not ready for this kind of responsibility, which can create an unsafe environment for everyone. Parents should always use their best judgment when allowing their typically-developing children to care for the special needs child. Try to reach out to adult family members or friends you trust to watch your special needs child before relying on your other children.


Some siblings can feel pressured to develop proficiencies in ways their special needs sibling cannot. Children may attempt to participate in school, sports, extracurricular activities or other social activities to compensate for the ways their sibling with special needs is unable to. Make sure your typically-developing kids feel free to pursue their own interests without the pressure to please you.

Suggestions for parents

Remembering these tips can help you be a great parent to all of your children.

1. Create an open line of communication encouraging family support and cohesiveness.
2. Attempt to set aside protected time for your non-affected children to help them feel loved and valued.
3. Allow flexibility when it comes to public outings and be sensitive to your typically-developing child’s social concerns.
4. Be conscious and cautious of allowing your typically-developing children to care for their special needs sibling, especially if they are voicing concerns about not feeling ready for such a big responsibility.
5. Remember that all your children are unique and have something special to contribute.

Helpful Resources

Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Special Needs Resource Directory

Beech Acres Parenting Center

Eames, A. (2013). Siblings of Children with Special Needs: Emotions. Baby’s First Test. Retrieved September 8, 2015, from
Kaiser Permanente, Department of Genetics. (n.d.). Siblings of Your Special Needs Child…Dilemmas and Advantages of Siblings of Special Needs Children. Retrieved September 8, 2015, from

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