Tips for Parenting Your Sick and Healthy Kids
If you have an infant or child with reflux it can definitely take a toll on family dynamics. This can apply to children with acid reflux, IBS, asthma, downs syndrome and a host of other conditions. Every aspect of family life tends to change and these changes can be tough for caregivers. Siblings also tend to be affected by the introduction of a child with "high needs" into the family dynamic. There are several things you can do to help your healthy child cope and understand the needs of your child with medical problems.
The most important thing to do is to maintain an open line of communication with your healthy child. There will be a period of adjustment and your child needs to know that they can come to you with all of their feelings and not be judged. It can be very hard for parents to discuss these issues while dealing with lack of sleep and stress from a sick child but it is really of utmost importance to prevent further issues down the line. Try to keep your healthy child's schedule as normal as possible and enlist the help of friends or family members if needed.
Sometimes siblings can become very jealous of the time spent with the "high needs" child. It is very important for parents to explain that being "high needs" does not mean that they are more special. Carving out some alone time to spend with your healthy child can be a good way to help limit potential rivalries. Limit activities that would foster competition and instead teach siblings to work together toward a goal or prize. Let them know that it is ok to get mad at their "high needs" sibling and give them appropriate tools for dealing with the anger. Often times just being able to verbalize their anger in a safe environment can help them to process what is going on without acting out. For younger children coloring a picture of how they feel or reading a story on the topic like: "Views from our shoes: growing up with a brother or sister with special needs" can help start the conversation.
Sometimes the healthy child will feel guilty. Guilty that they are not sick, guilty when they take up their parent's time or guilty when they get mad at their "high needs" sibling. It is important to let the healthy child know that it is ok to feel however they feel. They also need to know that they are just as important and valued in the family. Sometimes it can help to have the healthy sibling work with the parent to aid their sibling as long as it is not done in a way that would overburden the healthy child. For younger children role playing with dolls that have "special needs" can be a good teaching tool. The child can fix their doll's boo boo while mommy or daddy tends to their "high needs" sibling.
We talked with our older daughter a lot when our twins were born. In our home we made just as big a deal about her being the "big sister" as we did about them being "twins" and the subsequent medical issues we dealt with. We told our oldest daughter that God must have thought she would make a great big sister to give her two little sisters as once! She became very invested in their health and would ask lots of questions. Now that they are all in school she is a mini-advocate for her sisters.
Many times, especially as they get older, siblings will be embarrassed by their "high needs" brother or sister. Again, letting them know that it is ok to feel that way without reprimanding them is very important. Talking with them about their sibling's needs as well as their sibling's strengths can really help them to understand the bigger picture. Allowing the "high needs" child to do as much for themselves as possible is also important in shifting the balance for both children. Allowing your healthy child some down time away from their "high needs" sibling can help limit tension and encourage individuality. Often the healthy child need this time to be themselves as an individual and not be overly focused on their sibling. Encouraging separate interests as they apply to each child is also a good idea.
It can be very helpful to role play uncomfortable situations with your healthy child. Giving them good ways to stand up for themselves or their sibling when bullied or questioned can take the "sting" out of the situation. If the child already has a comeback or response for something that could potentially embarrass them then you are one step ahead of the game.
There is no cut and dry way to handle these issues. Each family has to find a way to develop their new normal. If you see signs of depression or anxiety in your healthy child, especially if they persist over a period of weeks, it may be time to seek additional help.
While it may seem like the presence of a "high needs" child in the home will be detrimental to a sibling this is not usually the case. When handled correctly the healthy sibling tends to grow up into a person with more maturity, social conscience, empathy, ability to get along with others, loyalty and family pride among other things (1). These are lessons that are priceless!