This is something that is hardly ever spoken of, but it happens in many, if not most families. The good news is that it is normal, it doesn’t predict future behavior, and you can address it without sending everyone to a psychiatrist.
The time and energy demands of a special needs child aren’t always in proportion to a child’s delays. Surgeries or therapy intensives can pull you away for weeks. The little things, like therapy always being at the same time as someone’s soccer games, are actually harder for siblings over time. Even sharing lap time can be tough for a toddler who was, until recently, able to climb into your arms anytime.
Remember, toddlers naturally see the world as theirs, and assume that they and their actions are a part of everything that happens to them, good or bad. They will not be able to fully comprehend why their sibling may take a long time to be able to play with them. Older children may perceive that it isn’t “nice” to complain about their perceived lack of parental attention, but they feel it.
What can you do? I believe that quality time is the answer, but only part of the answer. When you are planning, engaging in, and reminiscing about the quality time that you spent with your child, regardless of whether they are 18 months old or 18 years old, you approach it as if you were in a long-distance love affair.
If you were dating someone across the country, you would talk about the upcoming rendezvous with excitement, you would savor every short minute of it, and you would reconnect afterward, reminding your beloved of the wonderful time you had, and what you hope will happen the next time.
The twist that I learned from Dr. Harvey Karp’s wonderful book The Happiest Toddler on the Block is to put into words exactly how you FEEL about your child and the terrific plans (or event that just passed). Saying “I am SO, SO, looking forward to reading our special book tonight!” with a smile can mean that a child will put up with your absence at that soccer game. Reminding a child “Remember when we went out for ice cream alone, nobody else? That was fun!” helps them handle the fact that they are bathing with the nanny or big sister while you bathe and dress your special needs child. Even responding with sympathy:”I know…I am sad too that I can’t go with you to your playdate because I have to take Jonah to PT” and using a tone of voice, facial expression and body language that messages real regret; this will help your child handle their feelings without becoming aggressive or shamed for their feelings.
I think this works extremely well with your special needs child’s siblings. Kids need to hear how happy you are to be with them, that you look forward and backward with pleasure. They know on some level, even as toddlers, that they don’t get all your attention. But they really want and need to hear that you love being with them as much as they love being with you. It could be an ice cream run just with them. A game of catch just with them. Reading a new book together. Almost anything will work, as long as you elaborate on your feelings as well as talking about the event itself. Mentioning your excitement or good memories during a calm time works better than wedging the comments in between correcting actions and giving consequences. A casual mention of your future plans can smooth out a lot of feathers!
Looking for more information on parenting when you have a special needs child? Read How An Aging-In-Place Specialist Can Help You Design an Accessible Home for Your Child and Universal Design For Parents of Special Needs Kids: It’s Important for You Too! and also The Cube Chair: Your Special Needs Toddler’s New Favorite Seat!