Parenting your typical child

It’s not always easy to have a sister or brother with a disability.

But there are profound benefits: Siblings of children with disabilities are often more empathetic than other children.

Loving someone with physical, mental or emotional challenges can lead children to learn kindness and caring. Siblings in this situation also may become more mature, patient and accepting of differences than other children their age.

Siblings may also grapple with other emotions, too. 

They may feel jealous of the extra time and attention their sibling receives from parents, or be embarrassed by their sibling’s appearance or behavior.

Feelings of guilt (Why don’t I have a disability?), isolation (No one understands how I feel.) and worry about the future (When my parents are gone, will I be responsible for my sibling?) are common, too.

Although most parents want to be fair and balance everyone’s needs, it can be challenging to make sure typically developing children get their share of attention when a sibling has needs that command so much more. 

Here are some tips to help parents in this situation:

Keep talking

A policy of honest communication lets typically-developing children know they can come to you without worrying you’ll judge them, and that you’re there to listen, hear and honor their concerns.

Their ability to honestly share their feelings, even when they involve a sibling, can also help your children feel closer to you.

Use age-appropriate language to explain a sibling’s disability, offering more information as your child grows older.

Letting your typical child become an “expert” on a sibling’s disability and help her pass on knowledge to others and feel like a valued member of a team.

Set expectations 

Have high, but realistic expectations for each of your children. 

This allows your typical child to achieve her best, but will also ensure that your child with disabilities develops some independence.

Maintaining expectations for all of your children, such as making your child with a disability responsible for appropriate household chores, may also reduce any resentment for what a typically-developing child may see as two sets of rules.

Some children might place pressure on themselves to be “super kids” to make up for what their sibling can’t do. Let your typical children know you support them unconditionally, and that failure is part of the learning process.

Most siblings fight and misbehave, regardless of their abilities. Keep that in mind when you correct behavior or settle disputes.

Find one-on-one time 

It goes without saying that family time and activities are important, but also make it a goal to include one-on-one time with your typically-developing children.

It’s not always easy to do this, but they need to know they’re important, too.

Get out and about

Being involved in your community helps others learn about and accept a child with a disability.

Socializing lets children with disabilities gain opportunities to develop social skills and form new relationships — and, as a result, their typically-developing siblings often experience reduced embarrassment about their sibling’s appearance or behaviors.  

Discuss their future

As your typically-developing children grow older, they should be able to pursue their own interests.

They also need to know it’s up to them to make their own life decisions, including what, if any, responsibility they’ll take for their sibling. 

Make it a point to engage in honest conversations about what help you may need from them, as well as how they view their responsibilities.

Celebrate successes

All children experience milestones and achievements. It’s important one child’s special needs don’t overshadow a sibling’s accomplishments.

Go the extra mile to celebrate the important moments in each child’s life.

Help children connect

As a parent, you may attend workshops or meetings, or find support in talking to other parents of children with disabilities.

Your typical child needs the same kinds of connections.

Seek out opportunities for them to meet other siblings of children with disabilities.


Michele St. Martin is director of communications at The PACER Center, a Minnesota nonprofit organization that serves families of children with disabilities and those who have been bullied. Learn more at pacer.org.