My sister has two sons. Her younger son, aged 6, has been diagnosed with severe attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, among other things. So when we go out anywhere in public, it is quite a scene at times. Anything can suddenly set him off—even just being confined to a bus seat or a restaurant table.
The older child of 10 is extremely well-behaved most times but sometimes he gets very embarrassed by his brother and shouts at him. When he does this, all the adults around—his parents, his granny, even me, I admit, tend to shout him down and tell him that he is grown-up and must understand that his brother is not doing it deliberately. Now, I find he tends to just “zone out” when his brother acts up in a public place, and lately I notice he just concentrates on food and stuffs his face, literally, with anything that he can. I sense our approach to the older child is not right, but I am not sure what we can do.
It’s good that you have noticed the older child’s predicament. Kids with siblings with special needs definitely have their own special needs. And these often get ignored and neglected because the parents are so totally caught up in the struggle with the other child. So many adults who grew up in similar situations have felt the burden of being the “good” one, and have had to make do with only whatever extra energy their parents may have had left.
While I am sure the family has discussed the younger child’s difficulties with the older brother, perhaps it is time to let him express his own irritation, frustration, guilt, anger, social embarrassment, fears and jealousy with his parents or with you. Kids in his situation who don’t get an outlet for their feelings may grow up denying their emotions—your description of him “zoning out” points to this possibility. This is bound to affect his relationships with others, including the sibling with the disability—all this makes him vulnerable to depression.
And this can manifest itself in different ways. Finding an outlet for his feelings via eating disorders or other inappropriate ways is a possibility, and you say that this child is already showing signs. Healthy kids who don’t get enough attention may end up having discipline issues because, sadly, they learn that acting out is one way to get noticed.
Your family needs to find ways to acknowledge the older child’s needs—including accepting that for him his younger brother’s public meltdowns are extremely distressing. Asking him to “deal with it” all the time is not fair and not possible. You could consider taking him out to places or for activities where the younger sibling is not taken. I understand that everyone’s extra time and energy is currently going into the special needs child; however, you could volunteer to take him out or you could volunteer to look after the other child while the parents go out or spend some joyous uninterrupted time with the older son.
Some parents, understandably, are determined to always include a special needs child in all family outings, functions, activities—in their efforts to make him a completely included member of the family. However, this ends up being unfair to the other child at times. It is advisable that some programmes should be planned without the special needs child. This would involve planning ahead, to leave the special needs child in the care of someone dependable. It’s important to have this, else the older child may suffer the situation that many do—which is that his parents can never or rarely attend his sports day or concert or match or any of his “high-point” moments.
When the special needs child misbehaves directly with the sibling—grabbing toys, destroying things, hitting, among other things—he or she is more often than not asked by parents to understand and accommodate. The family also needs to work on setting (as far as possible, in the situation) some rules for the special needs child in his behaviour towards his sibling. While this may not be followed always, the other child at least feels that there are some ground rules, in your mind at least, that protect him from the troubled/troublesome brother.
Do also see to it that the healthy child gets to pursue his interests and studies at his own pace, and is not stuck with striving to excel mainly to compensate for what the special needs child cannot achieve.
Be there in a listening and deeply empathetic way for your nephew, as well as his parents, and you will have done a lot for the situation.
Gouri Dange is the author of The ABCs of Parenting.
Write to Gouri at firstname.lastname@example.org