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—You always give Atul the bigger piece."

—“I know you like Mira more than me."

—“Why should I always be the one who gives in?"

Most parents sigh in exasperation when their efforts to play fair with their children don’t meet with success. Typically, one child feels like the underdog no matter how much you try to parcel out your attention, love and support evenly.

Parental love may be immeasurable, but you have to exhibit it among other competing demands. As long as you ensure that all your children are loved and cared for, children usually take the all-rounder brother or the more talented sister in their stride. But what if one of them has special needs? Given that you would spend an inordinate amount of time and emotional energy in catering to the needs of the special child, how would you react when the other sibling accuses you of being negligent or remiss in your duty as a parent?

Family dynamics are complex and unique. And, contrary to what parents may want to believe, children are not created equal. Even in families where all the children fall under the “normal" spectrum, there is wide variation in terms of abilities, proclivities and personalities. Parents may swear that they don’t compare their children, but comments like “Rima is the patient one" or “David is the athlete" send a clear message. Ironically, in families with a special child, these inequities get both amplified and nullified as the siblings usually cannot be gauged by the same yardstick. Thus, a parent may berate Sheila, the typically developing eight-year-old, for getting her division sums wrong while lauding Kunal, the 10-year-old with Down’s Syndrome, for neatly printing his full name. By understanding the impact a special child has on a family, parents can take proactive steps to cater to the unstated needs of their typical children as well.

In a 2008 study published in the Journal Of Intellectual Disability Research, researchers in Western Australia interviewed over 300 parents of children with either Down’s or Rett syndrome (the latter, a severe type of autism) on the effect of disability in siblings. Parents reported both benefits and drawbacks on their typically developing children. Among the major disadvantages cited, parents bemoaned that they spent less time with the typical child as the special child demanded more attention. In addition, the family often had to forego socialization and other outings and adhere to a fixed routine. Often, parental stress from caring for the special child rubbed off on the non-disabled one too. And some parents felt guilty that their young child was already saddled with the burden of caring for his/her special sibling.

On the plus side, parents identified many advantages. They felt that their typically developing children were more tolerant of disability or difference and more compassionate than their peers. Most children also developed a heightened sense of empathy and were perceived as more mature and patient than other children their age. In addition to chipping in to care for the special child, these children also appreciated their own life to a greater degree and did not take their abilities and gifts for granted.

Share love, feelings

In her 2002 book, Special Siblings: Growing Up With Someone With A Disability, Mary McHugh provides an evocative first-person account of what it is like to grow up with a younger brother who is mentally challenged. Besides sharing her candid feelings, McHugh also interviews people who have a sibling with a disability. Often, children have ambivalent feelings about themselves and their brother or sister.

On the one hand, the child may resent a special sibling because he or she practically usurps all the parental attention and energy. But, at the same time, the child may also put inordinate pressure on herself to achieve stellar heights in order to “make up" for the disabled sibling, who may not reach conventional milestones. Interestingly, about one-third of the siblings that McHugh interviewed chose careers in the service professions, while many others either volunteered or were advocates for social causes.

In their 2012 best-selling book, Siblings Without Rivalry—How To Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, communication experts Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish caution parents against casting children into roles, even if a child has special needs. Foremost, as children have differing needs, they advise parents that children do not have to be treated equally. Instead, they advocate treating every child uniquely.

Thus, when children are fighting over who got the bigger piece of cake, ask the children, “Is anybody still hungry? There are some biscuits in the tin." Do not encourage comparisons by saying, “Both your pieces are equal." When children accuse you of loving the sibling more, list out the unique qualities that you love in the child.

Secondly, children with special needs should not be viewed as “problem" children. Instead, parents may accept each child’s frustrations, appreciate what they can do and focus on finding solutions to navigate their challenges. This will help children to not cast themselves in either a “victim" or “perfect child" role.

Faber and Mazlish also recommend that each parent should spend some time alone with each child several times a week if possible. During this “special time", make sure that you devote your attention to the child you are spending time with, without referring to the other child. In addition to bonding with the child, carving out this time communicates that you value each child for his or her individuality.

In her book, McHugh quotes Debra Lobato, a developmental psychologist, who encourages parents to debrief their typically developing child about the problems that their sibling has in an age-appropriate manner. Moreover, parents must also involve siblings in discussions on how long-term care can be provided to the special child after the death of the parents. As McHugh convincingly writes: “The most important factor here is how the parents react to a child with a disability." If the parents adopt an optimistic world view regarding their special child, the rest of the family is likely to mirror the same positivity.

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is the founder and director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties.

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