Parents of Children with Special Needs: Your Kids Don’t Need Equal Time

If you are the parent of a child with special needs, and if your child has siblings, you’ve probably been told at some point that you need to “give your children equal time.” Parents of kids with special needs have been told this for decades. The repercussions of not giving the children equal time, they are told, are frightening — your neurotypical child will suffer emotionally and lash out by possibly resenting you as a parent, and their sibling with special needs to boot.

This is a disturbing and frightening idea to any parent — now you not only have a child with serious developmental issues, but you also run the risk of emotionally traumatizing your well child. As if you needed another problem.

This is a terrible claim, but, fortunately, it is untrue. It is a myth with little evidence to support it.

I have worked hand-in-hand with families of children with special needs over the last dozen years. At Doman International, I teach these families intensive, integrative, home-based treatments. I have spent thousands of hours working with and teaching these families. I often meet the siblings of these children when they come along to the child’s appointments at Doman International. I have met thousands of families now, and this claim regarding resentful siblings could not be further from the truth. In fact, most siblings of children with special needs who I have met are loving, supportive, and kind to both their sibling and their parents. I consider many of them angels and am astounded by their selflessness. I can honestly say that the siblings of these children with special needs are some of the most spectacular human beings I have ever met.

So how has the “resentful sibling” myth spread? I’m not exactly sure, and honestly, I won’t waste time trying to figure it out. Of the thousands of families I have met, have there been a few with a jealous sibling? Yes, a handful. But if I picked out a thousand families who only had neurotypical children, I would most likely find more cases of jealous, spiteful, and resentful siblings.

The most important question for parents is, “How do I avoid my neurotypical child feeling left out or neglected?” This is the question that I want to answer.

Here’s what you need to know as a parent: Your children don’t need equal time, they need SHARED time.

The families that I meet don’t have resentful siblings because the brothers and sisters of the child with special needs play an essential, and respected role in the family. They see themselves as caregivers and therapists for their own sibling. These well children never get even remotely as much time from their parents as their siblings — their siblings have serious developmental disabilities that require intensive treatment that takes up most of their parents’ time and focus. However, these siblings know they are loved and respected because they have an important and essential role in the family. They are their parent’s assistants with the treatment programs, and in the household. They often have jobs of their own which increase their sense of self-worth (perhaps they read to their younger sibling, put on their shoes when they go out for a walk, or help feed them at meal time). They take pride in this work, because they know they are valued. They see this family time, even though it is often hard work and a challenge, to be rewarding.

This is the value of shared time.

Give your children time together with you, as a family. This is what strengthens relationships — this is what builds a true team. Of course, the child with the most needs will get the most time. If one of your children has the flu, doesn’t that child get the most time and attention? Of course! A developmental disability is more severe, not less, than a temporary flu. Including your well child in the treatment, and in the daily routine of your child with special needs, empowers them.

Three weeks ago, I was speaking with a wonderful mother who had this very dilemma. She was trying to give her two children equal amounts of time and struggling at it. Her daughter is diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum. While her well child was at school, she made sure her daughter received all of her treatment. Then, when her well son returned home from school, she made sure to give him alone time for a few hours, while a nanny was with her daughter. Then she went back to her daughter to do more work in the evening while her son had dinner. It wasn’t going well — her son felt he wasn’t getting enough time with mom, and mom felt she wasn’t giving either child enough time.

I said to this wonderful mom, “Your children are learning Mom’s time can only be had when the other sibling is gone. Why don’t you teach them that they can enjoy spending time with mom together?” She tried this new approach, spending more time with both of the kids. She involved her well son in her daughter’s activities in the afternoons. They started reading books together, going out for walks together, and doing some of her daughters other home-based treatments as a team. I spoke to her last week, just two weeks later, and she said this “small change” had completely changed their lives. Her son was happier. Her daughter was happier. And she was happier. Everyone had mom’s time, because everyone had more family time.

I grew up in a family as the second of four healthy children. My parents worked full-time and raised four kids to boot. I honestly don’t remember a lot of alone time with my parents growing up, and I’m sure most of you who grew up in families with more than three children didn’t have much “alone time” either. But am I resentful? Absolutely not! We had plenty of family time and received all the love we needed from those experiences.

So, don’t be afraid of this frightening, and destructive, myth. Instead, tell your neurotypical child, “You’re an amazing child, and our family is so lucky to have you. You help your sibling out whenever they need it. You are always helping me — I don’t know how I’d do it without you. I need you and I need your help, and I will include you on absolutely anything you want to be a part of.”

Then follow through.