ChildrenClaudia SalgadoParents

Siblings of Children with Chronic Conditions: 4 Potential Signs of Distress to be Aware of

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Being a parent carries the blessings of unconditional love, joy, laughter, and pride as well as the weight of responsibility. As a parent, you balance the wants and needs of your children on a daily basis while making the best choices for them and for your family as a whole.

You face additional challenges when having a child with a chronic illness or behavioral or emotional issues. Severe food allergies, medical conditions, or diagnosis on the autism spectrum disorders are examples of additional challenges. This usually means that more of your attention must be with that child to ensure safety as well as to enable that child to thrive. 

It is quite the balancing act to provide the support that your child needs while meeting the needs of your other children. You know this well when you struggle to be everywhere and with everyone. You try to support every one of your children and enjoy their continued growth and development. 

The increased focus on one child within the family impacts other family members, particularly the other siblings.  Growing up with a sibling that has special needs or requires additional supports can be an opportunity. Siblings can learn empathy, be caring and develop responsibility.  This can contribute to being a well-grounded child and future adult.

Siblings can also experience negative feelings regarding growing up with a sibling that has special needs. Your child may even at times  resent the extra attention and support their sibling gets. They may feel unwanted or undeserving of attention, experience decreased self-esteem, and or increased anxiety and depressive symptoms. 

You continuously monitor all your children to ensure their needs are being met. It is easy sometimes to feel and perceive that all your children are coping well.  Keep in mind that children can be apt at presenting this way. Children can suppress their own needs, leading parents to feel that they are indeed coping well.

There are some signs that may alert you to potential concerns. There are also strategies you can put into place to help them cope in a positive way. It is possible to decrease the negative impact of challenges while growing strong and thriving.

 

Taking on the Parental Role

 parentification Like most children, your child knows when you are worried. Not all the time or in all circumstances, but certainly more than we think. Children notice shifts in mood and body language.  They overhear what is said and unsaid. They see your concerns for their sibling. It is not unusual for children to notice brewing frustration, fatigue, or overwhelm.

They love you.  For some children, this means trying to take on some of the responsibility.  It is not uncommon for children to try and support their parents in taking care of their sibling. You frequently see this in action when one child is giving instructions or attempting to discipline their sibling.

Sometimes this can be helpful.  Children can build empathy, responsibility, and resourcefulness.  For you, it can provide needed assistance in critical moments. When taken too far, it can be damaging. It can interfere with relationships between siblings. A child who, too frequently, takes on parental behavior can become confused about their place in the family.  

It may become more challenging for you to parent a child that perceives themself to be an assistant parent. Imagine trying to parent another parent and how well that would be received. You may also notice at times that they focus too much on their sibling. There is a lack of focus on their own life, expectations, needs and opportunities.  They sacrifice their needs for the needs of the family.

Tips:

  • Catch your child being good and let them know specifically what was the good choice, action, or behavior. This will reinforce the behavior you want to see more of, for example verbalizing own needs in an appropriate way.
  • Be open to acknowledge the stress in the family and ways everyone can help and contribute in a positive way.
  • Remind your child that it is important for them to be children. Encourage them to live through those experiences and leave the parenting to you.
  • Provide your children with opportunities to appropriately and verbally express their feelings about the situation. Acknowledge their feelings and help them learn from their experiences.

 

Anxiety

Children experience anxiety in many diverse ways. They may tell you they worry about their sibling or the future of the family. Sometimes they may not express it verbally but show it through actions, or physical symptoms like stomach aches. Worrying about a sibling, parents, and the  family is not unusual.

The experience of anxiety can be helpful in that it creates the opportunity for problem solving, taking action, and preparation. Worrying excessively about a sibling and family can lead to unhealthy anxiety. 

As a parent it can be difficult at times to reduce the experience of anxiety for your child.  You contemplate whether to give information or not. How much information is appropriate requires taking into account your child’s age and maturity. Information helps children understand a situation; where they would otherwise feel out of control. This also allows children to have increased confidence in the parent’s ability to handle it.

It is important to remember that children in these situations may be less likely to share about their troubles. Your child may not share what may be distressing to them to avoid further burdening you.

Additionally, not processing and learning to express and manage their feelings can contribute to anxiety. It can lead to decreased ability to communicate  thoughts, needs and feelings assertively. Your own worry can easily transfer to your child. Learning better ways to manage your own worries can help prevent that.

Tips:

  • Let your children know that it is okay to talk to you about their worries and anxieties. Let them know that sharing worries and anxious thoughts is an opportunity. It allows them to problem solve instead of carrying the burden alone. 
  • Do a regular and intentional check-in with your child and find out what they are thinking and feeling.
  • Remember that when encouraging your child to talk they may not yet have the skills needed to articulate their concerns. They may need you to model appropriate communication. It may be beneficial to share that you were feeling very nervous when … and you chose to do … to manage your feelings.
  • Provide as much age appropriate information, as you feel comfortable sharing with your child. This will minimize worries they may or may not be expressing. It will also encourage them to ask questions and get information they need.
  • Remind your child that you value them and care for them. Don’t assume they know it. This can encourage your child to share more with you. Moreover, they will feel and know that what they have to share is important.

 

Be alert to signs of anxiety and role confusion. Having open conversations with your children will enable you to support your kids’ healthy growth.  Stay tuned to the final blog in this series; which provides helpful tips for managing acting out behavior and fostering healthy self-esteem in siblings.

 

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Claudia is a Licensed Marriage and Family therapist who helps couples, families, adults, and children utilize their strengths and skills to thrive. Claudia provides her clients with the tools to help reconnect with their partner, work through family conflict, or help children overcome their hurt. In addition, Claudia specializes in treatment for trauma, blended families, and grief and loss.