What is it like to be the big brother of a special sister?
Anyone with brothers and sisters knows about the love and sometimes hate relationship, the fights, teasing, competition and betrayals that come along with solidarity. Siblings teach us so much and help us when we struggle. They love and know us better than anyone else in this world. They are masters in pushing our buttons and have the ability to drive us crazy.
When our daughter Dominique became part of our family our whole dynamic changed. Alexander and Benjamin met their tiny little sister for the very first time in the PICU. They were as much caught up in the whirlwind of events as we were.
During the first three weeks we were blessed that my two older sisters Sabine and Gisela from Germany were able to stay with us. Their visit and undivided attention for Alexander and Benjamin helped us to bridge the gap that we left behind by practically living in the hospital until Dominique was able to come home with us.
I remember tender moments when Pete and the boys visited me at the Ronald McDonald House in St. Petersburg for the weekend. I was able to stay there for the entire time Dominique was hospitalized. Living only one mile down the road from the hospital allowed me to be with our tiny, sweet girl almost around the clock.
Our boys didn’t really understand what was happening. One moment they were excited to welcome their new sister to our family and in the next they felt like this baby took their mommy away.
The weekends became highlights we looked forward to. This was an important time to reconnect, a time to talk, a time to play and have some “normalcy”. We all dreaded Sunday night when we had to say our goodbyes. Many tears and multiple hugs later they finally drove away from the parking lot with their little noses pushed against the car window.
SIBLINGS STRUGGLE TOO.
During the first two and a half years both boys watched how Pete and I tried to juggle lots of doctor visits, surgeries and hospital stays with every day life. It goes without saying that we struggled to meet everyone’s needs.
One day our Benjamin walked up to me with a gloomy face and said:” Mommy, you are so much nicer to Dominique than to us. Do you love her more because she is a girl or because she is sick?” In that moment I dropped down to my knees to hold my precious child tightly. He was missing his fun and loving mommy. Our tears helped us to heal and open up. It made me aware of their deep need to have a safe place to talk about their feelings, worries, fears and their deep desire for more attention.
SIBLINGS ARE UNDER STRESS
When one child in a family has problems that consume a lot of attention, restrict activities, or generate a lot of concern, their siblings may react in different ways. Some might take care of themselves and persuade themselves that they don’t need attention, while others might act out to find a way to get more attention. Our boys became big helpers who tried to fix problems for us. They were extra good and avoided getting in the way. They converted into little “Pete and Silke versions” who carried a heavy load of responsibility that burdened them.
SIBLINGS ARE HUNGRY FOR ATTENTION
The most immediate challenge for our boys was that Pete and I had to spend more time focusing on Dominique. They didn’t understand why we were worrying about her so much. Her needs were in many ways so demanding and urgent.
Pete and I made it a priority to give Alexander and Benjamin as much attention as possible. We allowed them to choose what they wanted to do which gave them something they could look forward to. They desired undivided attention that was meaningful and consistent like reading their favorite book or watching and talking about their favorite movie.
We often chose to split up as a family to allow them to participate in events or activities.
Homeschooling allowed us to spend more time with each other and helped me to watch them closely. One of the most important tools in helping them to cope with the challenges were the moments we could openly talk about a situation, their frustration and their feelings towards each other and God.
Being the big brother or sister of a special needs sibling is not easy. Their feelings like resentment, anger, shame, embarrassment, guilt and fears are often overlooked and they don’t get the emotional attention needed.
THE HIGHS ARE HIGHER, AND THE LOWS ARE LOWER FOR THEM.
In any sibling relationship loving and fighting can exist in the same 15-minute period. When the dimension of disability is added to their relationship these highs are higher, and the lows are lower.
Through their experience as brothers of a special needs sister our sons have matured more quickly and become very sensitive and compassionate young men who have a heart for people who struggle with emotional or behavioral issues. They both are very patient, positive and supportive. Their faith and relationship with Christ has deepened and become real.
Before I started writing this blog I asked our son Benjamin if he had any regrets or negative feelings about growing up with a special needs sister. He just looked at me and answered:” Mom, I don’t. I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.”
Raising children is the most rewarding and challenging calling I have ever had in my life. It requires more wisdom, strength, intuitive understanding, humility, spirituality, perseverance, and hard work than any other challenge in my life.
In 3 John 1:4 John says: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.”
This scripture has become one of my greatest goals in parenting. I know that I will fail and mess up but I rest in knowing that God loves my children indescribably more than I ever will be able to understand. The Lord hears my prayers and petitions to make up for my shortcomings.
Do you openly talk with your children about what is happening in your family?
Do you find time for a one-on-one with each child?