Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Living with Siblings Who Have Learning Disabilities

    By Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D.
    Published: July 1 2008
    "Don't forget about me!"
    Seeing the Forest Through the Trees
    Raising children is a wonderful journey that has rewards and challenges every step along the way. Parenting children with special needs (whether they have health issues, problems with learning and behavior, and even exceptional abilities) is especially labor intensive. The attention and energy expended to meet these special needs and keep a healthy balance between home and school can be all-consuming and at times exhausting. As a consequence of this day-in and day-out juggling act, the feelings and needs of non-disabled siblings might be unintentionally overlooked.

    Being on "LD alert" 24/7 can be very tiring, and parental stress and fatigue alone takes a toll on siblings who continually have to figure out how they fit into the flow of family activity and emotions and how their needs for attention, approval and assistance can be met. With parents needing to devote additional time and resources to helping one child, the overall family dynamic is easily thrown off balance.
    Siblings Have Feelings Too
    What could siblings be thinking and feeling as they watch their brother or sister struggle with learning? If they could find the right words, they might touch upon the very same emotions that were described by a psychologist in the 1940s who proposed a model of understanding human behavior. This 'hierarchy of needs' can readily be used to understand some of the emotions that need to be appreciated, understood and addressed by parents and other adults in order to help siblings cope with feelings of anger, jealousy, worry, guilt, and embarrassment that comprise their personal "baggage" as siblings and family members.
    Physiology (having to do with comfort and the physical body)
    "How come he gets more hugs than I do? And for things that are expected of everyone, like finishing homework!"
    Safety (dealing with the need to be protected from harm)
    "Why can't he make his own sandwich? He just needs to be careful with the bread knife.
    "What's the big deal about him riding his bike to school?"
    Belongingness and love (feeling attachment to others)
    "It seems like she's always the first one to get attention."
    "I'm always doing things for her; when was the last time she did something for me?"
    Esteem (having your thoughts and actions valued by others)
    "If you ask me, I'd tell you that you need to back off a little; you're doing things for him that he should be doing for himself."
    "What about my report card? Pretty good, huh?"
    Knowledge and understanding (seeking information)
    "When will her LD go away?"
    "Is she ever going to be able to do her work on her own?"
    Aesthetic (deriving pleasure and triggering emotion)
    "He's got a great laugh, even though his sense of humor is weird."
    "I wish I knew how to really help him when he's feeling down on himself."
    Self-actualization (having "peak experiences" that provide self-fulfillment)
    "I know we're very different, but we'll always be there to support each other."
    "They said he couldn't learn how to play guitar, and I taught him!"
    Transcendence (connecting to something beyond yourself to help others)
    "Everyone deserves to be appreciated for who they are and not just what they can do."
    "I know how important it is to spend time with him and his friends; they really look up to me and know that I will treat them with respect (even though they can be annoying and immature at times)."
    Vying for Attention
    It's only natural that siblings will compete for their parents' attention, and it's no different in families where there is a child with special needs. Misbehaving or acting out is often the way that children call attention to themselves, but underlying these actions is more often than not a genuine call for help. It is not uncommon for siblings of children with LD to share that they:
    Feel jealous of the extra attention being paid to others in the family
    Think they alone feel the way they do and see themselves as "outsiders" in their own families
    Resent all the attention being paid to others and wonder what they could do to regain some of the spotlight
    Feel guilty that their sibling has a "problem" when they don't
    Are embarrassed by having to make excuses or explain why their sibling can't do certain things or needs special attention
    Are worried about their parents and how hard it is for them to meet everyone's needs in the family
    Children with LD need special types of services and supports to succeed in school, at home and in the community. These demands will change over time but may continue throughout their lives. And while the demands upon families may decrease, the feelings that parents and siblings carry with them often remain.
    Some Take Away Tips
    Avoiding comparisons that point to weaknesses
    Make sure to notice (and even celebrate) special abilities or successes
    Do not assign family members to particular roles based on their skills and abilities
    Especially during stressful times, try to find opportunities to laugh!

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