Supporting Children with a Special Needs (SN) sibling

Siblings Siblings Photo Credits: Jasmine Lee

A “special needs child” is defined as having medical, developmental, or neurological challenges, or another type of disability which impacts the entire family system, thereby requiring...

... special supports (i.e. medical, educational, etc.).

Having a child with special needs has a huge impact on every member in the family.  It affects in particular, the siblings individually and the relationship between siblings. Siblings make up a child's first social network before expanding his or her interactions with people outside the family. Neurotypical (NT) siblings can have as strong an influence on their SN siblings as parents do.

Each child in the family has a different personality, brings about different energy and contributes to the family dynamics differently. The age and developmental stage of the neurotypical child can compound or ease the challenges. It is more difficult for a younger child to understand the nature of a diagnosis to process complex and conflicting emotions or even to interpret events realistically. As siblings mature, they take on different roles and often, more responsibilities that are “unconsciously” or “inevitably” placed upon them. Many NT individuals with SN siblings often develop “mother hen” characteristics and mature “earlier” than their peers, due to the magnitude of demands placed on the family. While these are positive feelings that siblings may experience, for this article, we look at some negative feelings that may emerge.

Negative Feelings that Siblings May Feel

RESENTMENT – over the amount of attention, resources and support given to the SN sibling

FEAR - (especially of older SN siblings) that having the same parents they may develop or have the same challenges later. Or that their SN sibling might unwittingly hurt them.

GUILT – for making “demands” on already burdened parents or for saying nasty things about their SN sibling

JEALOUSY –over the extra attention given to the SN sibling

LONELINESS – that SN sibling does not / cannot interact with him; or that friends of NT child do not understand what he is going through

REJECTION –as most of the attention and resources go to the SN sibling

MOOD SWINGS –between positive and negative emotions as their ability to cope varies

ANGER – about stares and comments by public on the SN sibling

DISAPPOINTMENT –that their SN sibling cannot play with them like other siblings in other "regular" families

EMBARRASSMENT –over the actual or expected perception of their SN sibling

Some Common Sibling Quotes About Their Experience of Having A Brother or Sister with Special Needs

“It is not fair” (RESENTMENT)

“Why do you talk to (SN Sibling) so nicely but you always scold me?” (REJECTION)

“Will I have the same problem too?’ (FEAR)

“He is like this because I pinched him last time” (GUILT)

“You love (SN sibling) more than me!” (JEALOUSY)

How to Support Neurotypical (NT) Siblings?

1) Communicate Openly About the Diagnosis

Just as parents need information about the diagnosis, so do siblings.

While it is not easy to talk about sensitive or emotional issues especially with children, it is important to openly share about the diagnosis and its implications at a level that is age and developmentally appropriate.

E.g. XX was born much earlier before his body was ready. Therefore a part of his brain is still growing and he needs more time and support to grow, learn to walk and talk like you.

Some families may prefer not to name the diagnosis as it gives a pre-conceived notion. Instead, they may choose to teach NT siblings about the practical challenges faced.

2) Keep Communication Doors Open

Do not shy away from providing information that children ask for.

NT Children need to know that they can turn to their parents to share their thoughts, feelings, raise questions and provide suggestions. NT children need to know that on the one hand, their input and emotions have value, and on the other hand, they have an outlet because their lives are different from others.

3) Make Time for the NT Siblings Regularly

Parents need to be mindful to spend quality time (more is not necessarily better) with the NT child, engaging in fun activities and connecting with the child. Verbally express that this is time for only two of you. Express your feelings and reassurances for the NT child regularly throughout the week.

Each NT child is afterall, a child; and craves for parents’ attention, time, presence and love.

E.g. Mummy had been busy taking XX for hospital visits this week and I haven’t had much time for you. How about we go for dinner and movie this Friday? –Just the 2 of us”.

E.g. “Daddy had been away for work and I haven’t played YY game with you for a while. Shall we play a game after dinner?”

4) Being Present and Listen

Keep electronic devices away.

Hug the child or sit close together

Look at child and show active listening (make sure the child knows you are not thinking of something else or just coming up with a general response to what the child may say).

Acknowledge and reframe child’s comments and sharing (e.g. “Wow, that is a marvellous idea; let’s get zzz and we can play together with your brother/ sister (SN)”).

Ask open ended question (e.g. “How can mummy help you feel better?”)

AVOID giving judgements (e.g. “Your idea is good but it is better if you ….”; “Why don’t you do ABC, your approach is too slow”).

5) NT Children with Range of "Tools" to Cope 

Each child is unique and has different communication and expression approaches.

Having different tools in the tool-box (i.e. coping strategies) provides alternate coping mechanisms

Some “tools” can include:

a)     Talking to someone

b)     Drawing / Painting to “release” and/ or express oneself

c)     Baking and cooking (possibly for the older child)

d)     Going for a bike ride and/ or scooter in the park (open space)

e)     Listening to music pieces that child enjoys

f)     Writing a diary

g)     Engaging in sensory play (e.g. sand play; “acting out” a scene through play)

h)     Being given “down time” to be alone to process

i)     Through puppet play/ play using animal figurines

j)     Allowing NT child to help SN sibling (helps in esteem and responsibility)

6) Foster Relationship with SN Sibling

A child with a SN sibling may feel isolated and that his peers may not understand what he is going through.

Parents can approach doctors or online support groups to schedule for play dates with other families.

Within the family, parents can involve NT sibling in helping out the SN child (e.g. combing hair; making a drink together; helping SN child to hold his cards during UNO game, etc.).  This helps to develop the NT sibling’s esteem and role in the family.

7) Let the NT Child Be a Child

Parents are to be mindful to provide the NT child with a care-free childhood that his peers have. For example, scheduling play dates, sleep overs, attending birthday parties, etc.

Keep adult conversations about the SN child private and away from the NT child.

Having a child with special needs is not all bleak and glum. Parents play an important role in setting the tone of the family and how the siblings of the SN child may respond. With the right support and resources in place, internally and externally, siblings of the SN child can benefit from a more meaningful and purposeful life.


Samantha Tang

Samantha Tang is an Educational Psychologist currently working at a private center. Samantha’s caseload comprises of international and local families, with developmental delays and learning difficulties. Samantha works with children on the Autism Spectrum, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Global Delay, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, etc. Samantha conducts assessments and involves caregivers in the child’s intervention journey. Her work also involves school and home visits, partnering with professionals in the field; to empower each child and to bring out their full potential.
She can be reached at


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Question of the Month

  • Q: What are the various compressive suits available and in what way do they help a child with special needs?

    A: There are various compressive suits available worldwide, just do a google search on compressive suits for therapy and a long list will appear. Each suit has different properties, is made of different materials and claims to have certain benefits. For example: compressive suits for children with autism are supposed to improve sensory input. Compressive suits have also been used for children with poor balance and proprioception (knowing where your limbs are in space). However, not all suits are suitable for all children. Compressive suits can cause increased difficulty in breathing, worsen scoliosis or hip dysplasia if not fitted properly.

    Please consult your therapist for an assessment before use.

    Janell Lee
    Paediatric Physiotherapist

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