How parents of children with ADHD can save neurotypical siblings from getting lost in the special needs shuffle.
by Wayne Kalyn
When their parents go to teachers' meetings or to Wal-Mart to do a quick shop, Jesse, 9, looks after his bigger brother, Jim, 10, who was diagnosed with ADHD. "I have things to do myself -- homework, chatting with friends, listening to music -- but I love Jim," says Jesse, "so I put those things on the back burner for later."
Karen's sister, Amy, has been diagnosed with inattentive ADHD and anxiety. Karen is thinking about her little sister, but she secretly wishes family life could be "normal." Instead of having pizza delivered because Amy gets nervous around crowds and noise, "I think it'd be fun to go out for dinner and see a movie as a family."
Madelyn finds it challenging to be around her six-year-old brother, who has autism. "He can't talk to you, play with you, or help you," she says. "It's hard to help him when I want to try." She gets angry with her brother sometimes, but she prefers to bottle it up because she doesn't want to put more pressure on her parents.
There are more than 4.5 million people in the U.S. who have special health, developmental, and mental health concerns. "Most of these people have typically-developing brothers and sisters," says Don Meyer, founder of the Sibling Support Project (siblingsupport.org), a national program that addresses the concerns of brothers and sisters of people with special needs.
The siblings -- who experience everything from worry for their brothers or sisters, to resentment that their siblings always seem to get what they want, to unintentional neglect from their parents -- are forced to act like grownups in households that revolve around their brothers' and sisters' needs. As parents fill up their days helping their special-needs child, siblings are often left to solve problems on their own without the loving help of their parents.
Siblings might not say it, but they think, "What about me? Don't forget about me. I'm just a kid. Show me some attention."
Don Meyer hears their pleas. He developed programs and support groups for siblings. The cleverly named Sibshops are part support group, part playgroup. Siblings are allowed to act their age and let down their hair to talk about needs and challenges with peers. (To find a Sibshop in your area, log on to siblingsupport.org/sibshops/find-a-sibshop.)
Sibshops and other programs are a good resource, but parents are the best resource for supporting and loving neurotypical siblings. Meyer suggests that parents follow this sibling "bill of rights":
> Siblings have the right to have their own life. They are special, too. > Siblings have the right to feel and express ambivalent emotions about living with and caring for a special-needs child.
> Siblings have the right to sometimes misbehave, get angry, and fight with their special-needs siblings. They may sometimes be given responsibilities beyond their years, but they shouldn't be expected to act like well-adjusted grownups.
> Siblings have the right not to be saddled with more responsibility and chores than their special-needs brother or sister. Make one set of rules for both kids. This will reduce the chances that a sibling will resent his special-needs sister.
> Siblings have the right to attend IEP meetings and clinic visits with their brother or sister, if they want to. Siblings have personal questions that can only be answered by a doctor or professional. They also bring a perspective about their special-needs sibling that may enlighten the grownups at the table.
> Siblings have the right to know, from their parents' deeds and words, that they are cared about and loved. Parents can carve out time from a busy schedule to go to a ballgame or just talk at a favorite hangout.
One sibling explained to her mom at Dairy Queen that she blamed herself for her brother's disability and feared it might happen to her. Her mom corrected her daughter's misperceptions, and the eight-year-old's spirit seemed to brighten.
Sometimes, all it takes is a 10-minute chat over a chocolate ice-cream cone with sprinkles to show the love to a special sibling.