Your very special child

Having a child with a disability or chronic illness has a huge impact on you and your other children. Special-needs children can take up a lot of your time, meaning that any brothers and sisters can feel left out. It also places stress on your relationship – especially if you don’t work together to keep your family strong and united.

Extra special children and their families

Since men and women experience this challenge differently, it can be hard to work together – but teamwork is vital in order to keep your family strong and united.

How it can affect you

We all have hopes and dreams for our children and want them to be perfect. Having a child who has special needs can turn a family upside-down. Mum and Dad may find that all their time is taken up with caring for their special child, and brothers and sisters feel left out. Your patience will probably be stretched to the limit at times and if your special-needs child isn’t able to communicate easily, it may cause even more frustration.

Developmental stages may be long and slow – where your other children had passed through the tantrum stage by kindergarten, your special needs child may take years, or not outgrow them at all. “It may seem that every time your special needs child accomplishes something, a new challenge looms on the horizon,” says psychologist and Supernanny Expert Dr Robert Naseef, himself dad to a special-needs child. “That being said, the smallest achievements can be the source of great joy and pride – but you don’t have to lie to yourself about how hard this can be and the toll that it can take on your marriage.”

Working it out…

  • Plan in some alone time Whether it’s a cuddle and chat after the kids go to bed or a night out, try to do something together away from your children. “Start small,” Dr Naseef cautions, “because it may be hard to get a babysitter or plan an evening out guilt free.” It’s your close bond with each other that will help you cope when things are difficult.
  • Take care of yourself If your special-needs child takes up a lot of time, your own needs may be forgotten. It’s OK to be selfish now and then and focus on the things that you enjoy, whether it’s a session at the gym or taking an hour to yourself to read or relax. “Your child needs your energy and vitality,” says Dr Naseef. “It can be hard for your children to thrive with overwhelmed, stressed out parents.”
  • Stick together Dividing the kids between you, and having one parent shoulder the responsibility for your special-needs child while the other deals with her brothers and sisters, may create divisions in your family. “Many people do try to survive this way, and they become ‘tag-team’ parents,” Dr Naseef says. “But the division that occurs can be painful for all and lead to resentment.” 
  • Get help National organisations and local help groups can be a huge support when it comes to finding out more about your child’s condition and learning new ways to manage it. Respite care can take your child off your hands for a few hours or even days to give you a much-needed break.

How it can affect your special-needs child

Your special-needs child isn’t immune from similar stresses. Poor social skills can make her feel left out and her frustration is likely to increase if she has difficulty communicating. If she’s fully aware that she can’t do the things her brothers and sisters can, she may suffer from low self-esteem.

Working it out…

  • Don’t compare your kids It’s difficult, but try not to measure your special-needs child against her siblings’ development and achievements, or you run the risk of miring yourself in what she can’t do instead of celebrating what she can do and enjoying her for herself.
  • Understand your special-needs child You may think she’s acting up on purpose but lying, disrespect and general bad behaviour may be more to do with a lack of communication skills, poor motor skills and the inability to understand that her actions may have negative consequences.
  • Adjust your standards Try to accept that the dreams you had for your child may be impossible but don’t focus on her disability or undervalue her. Instead, dream new dreams and concentrate on helping her fulfill her potential – after all, even her brothers and sisters might not live up to every single one of your hopes and expectations!
  • Give her some independence It’s important for her to have goals, and to build self-esteem and gain some independence by doing as much as possible for herself and learning to make decisions.
  • Keep up the discipline Your expectations of your special needs child may necessarily be lower but this doesn’t mean you should tolerate bad behaviour. Just like her brothers and sisters, she needs to respect and obey the house rules and fit in with family routines. But do try to see things from her point of view and accept that her actions may simply be what’s developmentally appropriate for her. “Having appropriate expectations will help your special child to be all she can be, and isn’t this your heart’s longing?” says Dr Naseef.
  • Speak your child’s language It can make a huge difference when it comes to controlling bad behaviour and helping her make decisions – for example, a visual reward chart, with pictures of her eating her breakfast, brushing her teeth and getting ready for bed can help her stick to a routine; while flash cards with mealtime or clothing options drawn on them can help her make choices about what she’d like to eat or wear.

How it can affect your other kids

Jealousy is common among brothers and sisters if they feel their special-needs sibling takes your attention away from them. Older children may feel embarrassed and ashamed as they become more aware of the differences between them and their sibling – particularly if their friends have brothers and sisters who aren’t handicapped. Kids can worry that they might ‘catch’ their sibling’s condition and also feel guilty that they’re unaffected by it. They can feel that they’re under pressure to make up for their sibling’s limitations by doing extra-well in their studies or at sports. And their protective feelings may cause arguments or fights with their friends if they hear them make comments about their sibling.

These problems can be made worse if they think you’re playing favourites with their sibling: letting them off doing chores and not keeping on top of their bad behaviour while fully expecting her brothers and sisters to help with chores and toe the line when it comes to the house rules.

Working it out…

  • Avoid double standards Even if your special-needs child does need more attention, try to treat all of your children fairly and let them know you value and love them all. Make a special effort to have some alone-time with your other children so they don’t feel left out. “While it’s impossible to spend equal time with each of your children, even if they are all typically developing, it is possible to treat each child as special in his or her own way," says Dr Naseef.
  • Ease off on pressure to do well Don’t put too much pressure on your other children to succeed. “A child with a special-needs sibling is often expected to be perfect to make up for the hardship of the special needs child,” Dr Naseef observes. “While the child with a disability gets lavish praise, the ‘typical’ child’s achievements often go largely unnoticed or taken for granted. Each child needs to be celebrated.”
  • Don’t overindulge As far as you can, involve your special-needs child in day-to-day chores and, depending on the level of her disability, assign her specific jobs around the house so her brothers and sisters don’t feel they’re having to do it all. This cuts both ways – don’t overindulge the other kids in the family because you feel that you have to somehow make up for the fact that they have a brother or sister with special needs.
  • Don’t let disability rule your lives As much as you can, keep things as normal as possible. Try to do the things every family does: trips to the library or museum, or to see a film; meals out; playdates or study-buddy time for your other children. It’s vital that your special-needs child be included in family life and activities – and that you don’t deny your other kids their enjoyment because it’s too much hassle to go out with their sibling in tow.
  • Don’t rely too much on your other kids While it’s fine to involve your other children in your special-needs child’s routines, you shouldn’t let it become a burden or expect them to put their studies or social life on hold to give you a break.

Related links

  • Behaviour and discipline issues for children with autism: Children with Autism and Asperger Syndrome have unique behaviour issues. The National Autistic Society has some simple and effective strategies for dealing with behaviour at home and in public.
  • Special Needs and Your Relationship: If you and your partner are parenting a child with special needs, here are some suggestions to help you survive the challenges.
  • The Reward Chart is always a useful tool for getting the best behaviour out of your child, as Supernanny demonstrates…
  • House Rules: They apply to special-needs children too!
  • ADHD and behaviour - tips on how to discipline your child:  If your child has ADHD, coping with his behaviour can wear you out. But even though they act up, they still need the security of limits. So how do you discipline them without losing your mind?
  • Parents' Guide to Autism: You’re familiar with the term, but how does autism actually affect a child? How can you tell if your child may be autistic? And what should you do if you see the signs…?
  • Understanding Autism - one mum's story: Wonder Mum Dawn Prowse is mother to eight children, two of whom are on the autistic spectrum. She describes the process of diagnosis,a treatment and support for her boys.
  • Autism - a parent's perspective: It took six frustrating years to get a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome for Claire’s eldest son Jack. Claire describes how her son’s autism affects the whole family, and offers her personal tips and resources for other parents.

Find out more

Caring for a disabled child - government advice and information

Cbeebies online: CBeebies online has a range of content for children with special educational needs. This is where you can find out about the content we've created and share in parents' and carers' experiences.


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