Autism Isn’t Fair to Me! Promoting Positive Feelings Among Siblings

If you have more than one child, do they compete for your attention? Do you detect jealousy that you would rather not see? Does the amount of bickering among your children and lobbying for No. 1 position concern you as a parent? Welcome to the world of parenting!

In addition to that, if you have a child with special needs that requires extra time, money and attention, you unfortunately increase the risk that normal sibling resentment will impact your household. No matter how secure your other children are their individual temperaments and personalities can make them more susceptible to feelings of envy when their sibling has Autism. Warding off feelings of jealousy or rivalry when one child may need more attention than another can be emotionally draining for parents of autistic children.

Every child, regardless of ability or disability unconsciously competes with their siblings to define who they are as individuals. On their path toward self-discovery, all children want to show they are separate from their brothers and sisters and want to be recognized for their specific talents.

If children feel they are getting unequal amounts of attention or acknowledgement from their parents they often start to compete to prove their worth or withdraw into themselves. Thoughts such as, “What about me?” or “It’s not fair!” can rattle around in a child’s head to fester and develop into behavior problems. Wondering what you can do to promote more positive feelings?

Here are some tips that will help you promote healthy relationships in your children and reduce jealousy and rivalry among siblings.

1) Promote connection among siblings yet allow for separateness as well: Finding a good balance between having your children spend time together and away from each other is an important challenge for parents to take on.

– Plan family activities that are fun for everyone. When kids have good experiences together, it acts as a buffer when they come into conflict. It’s easier to work it out with someone you share warm memories with.

– Help your children find their own space. Make sure each child has enough time and space of their own. Kids need chances to do their own thing, play with their own friends without their sibling, and they need to have their space and property protected.

– Avoid putting your neuro-typical child in a position of responsibility for their sibling on the Autism spectrum. Short time periods and emergency situations aside, asking a young child to watch over their special needs sibling is too much to ask for and can trigger anxieties in addition to feelings of jealousy or hate.

2) Dole out love on many levels: Young children actually believe there is a finite resource of love. Therefore, young children can seem desperate to keep it all for themselves and they don’t understand that love can grow exponentially. Make it clear that there’s enough love to go around for everybody.

– Label your “alone time” with each child as it occurs. When you spend one-on-one time with any of your children refer to it as “mommy & me time” or “dad time” so they actually realize what is happening. Try to spend at least a few minutes each day. It’s amazing how much even just five minutes of uninterrupted time can mean to your child.

– Take some time to create unique and meaningful rituals for connecting with each child – different games or activities that speak to your common interests, special pet names, mystery passwords, or secret handshakes.

3) Explore raw feelings: Remember as children voice their opinions they think abstractly but talk in absolutes. They are usually not very subtle. Being slightly annoyed by their autistic brother becomes “I HATE HER! I WISH SHE WAS DEAD!”

– When in the heat of the moment: DON’T diminish or dismiss such statements with “You don’t really want mean that. You love your sister.” Instead, breathe deeply and validate her strong feelings with an empathic stance like “Wow. She really made you angry, huh?” Let the steam blow off and don’t rush to make ‘nice’ immediately. Resolving conflicts should wait until later when tempers have eased.

– When things are calm: DO check in during private moments to safely explore how your kids feel about each other. Ask them what they like most and least about each other. Encourage them to say whatever they want, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Just notice, don’t judge the negatives and focus on the positive things they hopefully express and affirm their ability to recognize them. This is a great way to help them vent and allows you to keep tabs on their feelings about their relationships.

4) Stay away from direct competition: Don’t set siblings up to compete with each other directly. If your children are drawn to the same activities allow them to pursue them but be careful not to set them up to be adversaries with each other very often.

– Set your kids up to cooperate rather than compete. Have them race the clock together to pick up toys, instead of racing each other. How fast can you do this together? Give them a brief amount of time to plan a strategy – this promotes great teamwork.

– When alone OR together with your children, do not use comparisons as compliments to pump up one of your child’s egos at the expense of the other (i.e. “Wow, you’re so good at math. Joey’s nowhere as good at math as you”). This is NEVER a good way to promote bonding among siblings.

Remember that tired, hungry or bored kids are more likely to become overly sensitive and perceive degrees of parental attention as unfair. Treating your children impartially is important but it is not the same as treating them equally. As your children “see” you meeting their needs, they will come to realize that you are doing your best but they also need to “feel” it. This is where listening, genuine listening and connecting to each child is important. If each of your children feels heard then they truly know you care and this has the power to reduce or diffuse any negative emotions towards each other.