By Charlotte E. Thompson, M.D., author of Grandparenting a Child with Special Needs.
Having a brother or sister with special needs can create life-long emotional problems for the siblings unless they receive a great deal of one-to-one attention and love. If the parents have to spend long periods of time in an intensive care nursery with a new baby or at doctors’ or therapy appointments with a child or teenager, grandparents can play a very important role.
If the grandparents live close by, they can help by driving brothers and sisters to school, games, lessons, or special event. These trips offer a good opportunity for grandchildren to bring up things that are bothering them. Sometimes saying something like, “How are things going with the new baby or brother or sister?” will open the flood gates. In the many sibling groups I have held, it has been amazing to hear some of the children’s complaints. The two most common were that they were getting little attention from their parents and their siblings were never asked to do anything, even when they could.
Many of the kids had a feeling of guilt about being healthy, when their brother or sister was not. If the siblings know a grandparent or grandparents are always ready with a hug, something good to eat, are available to listen, or just to provide a safe place where they can get one-to–one attention, this can make all the difference in the world. Many siblings of a child with a disability will either act out to get attention or be very, very good. A large majority of siblings go into the healthcare professions as adults, which many professionals believe to be a way of paying for their own good health.
There are children with special needs who make manipulation a fine art. Often when a problem or accident happens, a way is found to make it appear that the healthy sibling is the offender. This can be a hard burden for a brother or sister to bear, particularly if it happens repeatedly. If grandparents see this occurring, they may want to bring it up with the parents. This can be a very delicate subject and one that should be approached with a great deal of tact and in the proper setting. If the parents deny this is occurring, there is nothing grandparents can do unless they have full custody of the grandchildren. Then some family therapy or individual counseling might be in order.
A grandparent who lives at a distance can still make a difference with frequent telephone calls, cards, letters, and small gifts. If a trip to visit can be arranged that would be an even bigger treat. Taking one grandchild at a time on a trip can be a memorable experience for both the grandchild and the grandparents. Planning the trip together and giving an older child a budget for the trip can help the grandchild learn about money management. A trip doesn’t have to be expensive, because even a one or two day trip can be fun and not too tiring.
The greatest gifts grandparents can give to the brothers and sisters of a child with special needs is to let them know how much they are loved, spend time and have fun with them, and listen to their joys and sorrows.