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Jealousy in siblings of a child with autism is real, and reducible. Having a child with autism affects every member of the family in different ways. The relationship of the parent and the child, the relationship between the siblings, and even the marriage between parents of children with autism are affected by the diagnosis. When there is a family with more than one child and there is one sibling who has autism, there are several dynamics that can occur amongst the children.
Do you recognize these signs of sibling jealousy in your neurodivergent home?
6 Common Reactions In Children Living With an Autistic Sibling
There are four common responses from children when there is a sibling who is diagnosed with autism in the family.
Some children seem completely uninterested. This is usually due to communication issues with their sibling who has autism. For example, if a child with autism is non-verbal and they tend to engage in stimming behaviors (self-soothing, repetitive actions), it makes cooperative play less likely between siblings. Even if a typically developing sibling initiates communication or play with the sibling who has autism, the duration of time that the siblings are engaged is limited and both siblings move on to other things. This can cause a typically developing sibling to become indifferent to any further communication or interaction in the future.
Some siblings react to their sibling(s) with autism by watching, hovering, and protecting them as though they were secondary parents. Perhaps they have been put in a position at home or in school to watch their sibling or perhaps it is just the child’s nature to nurture. Whatever the case, it is easy to identify which siblings are the protectors of the sibling(s) with autism. They are often leading their sibling with autism around, assisting them with tasks, speaking for them, and even directing them from one location or task to the next. Overprotective behavior can often appear controlling or bossy- but the motive is protection for the sibling that has deficits.
Having a sibling who cannot communicate or express feelings can be trying for the sibling who does not have autism. There is no clear and direct method of discussing, planning, and carrying out imaginary play. If the sibling with autism is upset, the sibling without autism can feel helpless to respond to the upset. Helplessness often leads to feelings of frustration and sometimes anger because the typically developing sibling cannot resolve anything that requires clear communication or imagination which is necessary when interacting with a child with autism. The anger or frustration can be even more apparent when the typically developing sibling is interrupted by the sibling with autism while playing with another typically developing child.
Some typically developing children feel embarrassed by the behavior of a sibling with autism. If a typically developing child is trying to interact with other typically developing peers and a sibling with autism intervenes with noise-making, hand flapping, or any other outward behaviors that interrupt the scene, it is not uncommon for the typically developing sibling to feel mortified at the display. Perhaps the child is worried about their friend being uncomfortable or scared of their sibling. Maybe, there are behaviors that are borderline inappropriate that the typically developing sibling fears. Whatever the case, embarrassment is a reasonable and normal response from young typically developing children when it comes to living with a sibling who has autism.
Jealousy is a tough emotion to deal with because it may not appear as jealousy when it surfaces. Jealousy in children with autism and their siblings may look different. For their siblings, jealousy can appear as anger or deep sadness and retreat from a typically developing sibling. The most common reason for jealousy is undoubtedly the extra attention that the sibling with autism receives.
For parents of children with autism, this is hard to avoid because most children with autism usually require direction, redirection, correction, praise, and assistance with bodily functions, eating, and communicating. With all of these areas that require parental or adult assistance, time is taken away from the typically developing sibling. They are entrusted to figure things out, wait patiently, or help. The percentage of time that the typically developing peer receives from a parent or adult is a fraction of the time that the sibling with autism receives.
Yet, a typically developing child also requires forms of noncontingent attention, guidance, and communication. It is no wonder why some form of jealousy might surface. When it does, depending on the age of the typically developing sibling, it may appear as regression (acting like a baby or acting younger than they are), aggression (hitting, tantrums, shoving), rejection of the sibling with autism (yelling at them to go away, shutting them out of a room), annoying parents and adults by acting out, and causing disruptions that require adult attention to remedy, among others.
If prolonged periods of time go by and a typically developing sibling is neglected long enough, this can cause some emotional challenges. A child can start to feel lonely and sad. Loneliness and sadness can become apathy, and apathy can cause a child to retreat to an activity that soothes or/and entertains them. Perhaps watching videos, playing video games, or any other activity that takes their mind off of feeling neglected. Often, these typically developing siblings will find friends online via social media, chat rooms, and online games that have virtual players and teams. Like anything else, this can be a positive or a negative experience. The main concern with online activities is safety. Left unchecked, many children and teens have exposed themselves to dangerous situations online because they are unaware of the tactics and the threat that can be present online. The best solution to this is to avoid putting your child in a position to cure loneliness through outside sources of communication and to closely monitor online activity.
Sometimes a child may exhibit a combination of reactions. For example, overprotectiveness and embarrassment. This can be confusing or lead to guilt in a sensitive sibling. As a parent, understanding your child is the first step in supporting them. Keeping an open non-judging perspective and realizing that it isn’t only you and your child with autism facing adversity, but the sibling is also.
How to Deal with a Jealous Sibling
All of these considerations can be overwhelming when you think about them. There is so much responsibility as a parent to meet the needs of every child in the family. When a child with special needs is part of the family, it is easy to become distracted to the point of unintentional neglect of the others.
It takes a concerted effort to make sure that everyone in the family is feeling included and attended to.
So, what can you do as a parent to attend to everyone and keep jealousy from rearing its ugly head?
Here are some tips to consider:
Give equal time to all of your children. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, but if you literally schedule special time with each child it can make a huge difference. It doesn’t have to be an extraordinary amount of time, either. Just making the time sacred, uninterrupted, and intentional will help that child who is feeling jealous feel better about their connection to you as a parent. For example, take a 15-minute walk with your child. Take a drive to the yogurt shop together. Make a batch of cookies together. Whatever it is, just make sure that it is a special time for you and that one child. Do the same for the other children in the family.
If you see anger or frustration, take a minute to discuss those feelings with your child and ask them what would help them to feel less angry or frustrated. If they cannot answer right away, give it time and tell them to come back and communicate when they are able to express why they are angry. In the meantime, give a lot of hugs and praise to reassure that child in the family that you see them, you hear them, and you love them.
For the child who is feeling embarrassed about a sibling with autism, make sure you communicate with that child and find out what it is that is embarrassing to them. Give them some guaranteed time with their typically developing peers that they can rely on so that they aren’t afraid of intrusion or embarrassment. It’s only fair to allow them some private time with friends when the rest of their time with family is centered around living with a sibling with autism. Another option is to teach them to educate their friends about autism and prepare them for the possible behaviors that could occur. By teaching them to do this, you are helping them to inform others, and teach empathy and respect for others with a disability. You also help the typically developing child to feel a sense of control over the environment rather than fear embarrassment at the unexpected behaviors that may arise during a visit with friends.
For the overprotective sibling, a sense of responsibility rests on their shoulders that a young child should not have to carry. Encourage your typically developing child to have some time with their own friends. Keep aware of how much you are asking the typically developing sibling to watch over their sibling with autism; make sure that they don’t start to feel like a second parent. Teach your typically developing sibling to step back and allow their sibling with autism to answer their own questions, ask for their own needs and wants and lead the way once in a while. Remind your typically developing child that they need to be a good example but they are still equal in your eyes. Relieve them of feeling overburdened and responsible beyond what a sibling is responsible for.
It is a big job raising children, and an even bigger job to raise one or more children with autism in the mix. Families with children who have autism need support and guidance.
If you have a growing concern with sibling jealously, do not let it fester. Early intervention is one of the most powerful tools when it comes to therapy, so don’t hesitate to seek support. Reach out to a Mental Health Professional for guidance. If you have a child with autism, you can learn how to help your child acquire skills that will help them with communication, learning, and self-care.
Circle Care Services in New Jersey will help you and your family gain tools to build skills for life. Starting with ABA therapy right away is a great step towards successful living, communication, and family interaction. Contact us today to get started with ABA therapy, or sign up for our email list to receive more tips about parenting and life with a child with autism.