06/19/2013 02:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Summer, Siblings, and Coping With Disability


Summer vacation is just around the bend. But for parents of children with learning and other disabilities, the term is relative. One parent's summer vacation may be another parent's busiest time of the year -- or even a nightmare come to life.

During the school year, children with LD or other disabilities are largely settled into schools and afterschool programs. In summer, most of these programs are discontinued and parents may be left scrambling to find accommodations for their children. For working parents, there may be a sense of desperation over finding a solution so that office reputation and job security are protected. Moreover, there is the issue of lost ground.

The Summer Gap

Losing ground, also known as the "summer gap," is something that affects all children.
Instead of the steady crawl forward, children take a few steps back, and forget what they've learned over the course of the year. For a child with a disability, that loss is especially tragic and may represent the wasting of an important developmental milestone reached only through blood, sweat, and tears.

There is yet another factor to the hot stretch of the summer months that receives very little attention: the way that LD and other disabilities impact on the lives of the affected child's siblings, at a time when kids may be thrown together at length. Summer is supposed to be about lazy fun and quality time for parent and child. But the child with LD or other disabilities has special needs that may take up a lot of a parent's time -- time spent away from the other members of the family, leaving the other siblings feeling shunted aside.

It can, moreover, be difficult to travel with children who are affected by disabilities. Money may be especially tight in a family with a child who needs special accommodations, making it even less likely that a family can visit a vacation spot or send a child to camp. What's left is a lot of time spent together cooped up at home.

Behavioral Issues
Worse yet, children with disabilities may have tantrums or other difficult behavior patterns. It's hard enough for parents to cope, but siblings may find it rough going to grin and bear the behavioral issues of a brother or sister with disabilities as summer drags on for months.

During the year, a parent comes to appreciate that school is a source of difficulties both academic and social for the LD or otherwise disabled child. At the end of a long day of school, the child may need to let off some steam and it's only natural that this is going to happen at home where he feels comfortable. A parent may find it a challenge to reassure the frightened sibling of the child with the disability in the midst of the latter's hissy fit.

In the summer the situation is exacerbated in that the troublesome behavior is not limited to a specific time of day and may be ongoing. There is the need to help the child with the disability over a hump of difficult behavior as well as the need to offer reassurance to his siblings. Furthermore, a parent may feel pressured by the perceived need to make things as "normal" as possible for the siblings of the LD child. There may be a sense of guilt over the inability to give the sibling with more typical development a storybook kind of home.

Life Is Messy
Here is where some homespun advice is warranted, if only to break the grimness of these insoluble problems. Begin by accepting the premise that life is messy. In so doing you'll free yourself of the guilt that stifles that sense of certainty you need to carry it all off with aplomb. Kids can smell guilt and insecurity a mile away, and oh boy, will they ever try to exploit those feelings of yours to get an extra helping of chocolate cake, or that expensive cybertoy they've been wanting.

Get help
Contact volunteer organizations in your neighborhood to see what kind of help you can get. Even if you can't get the child with the disability into some sort of program, you may be able to get his sibling into a summer camp such as those underwritten by the Kars4Kids car donation program. There are good people and organizations who want to help.

Keeping all of the above in mind, here are some practical tips for parents raising children with LD or other disabilities side by side with their more typical siblings:

  1. If your child with a disability has a tantrum, find something for his sibling to do in a separate room. If the sibling seems worried, you can keep him by your side. If possible, put your arms around him as you deal with your LD or disabled child and make an effort to keep your voice both calm and firm. When the stormy behavior of the LD or disabled child blows over, make time for cuddling his sibling to help relieve him of his anxious feelings. Ask him if he'd like to talk about what he has just witnessed and let him feel that he has your full attention.
  2. Offer the "typical" sibling paper and crayons, or some modeling clay so he has a nonverbal outlet for his feelings. Art can be a great comfort in the aftermath of a sibling's outburst. Have your child tell you about his artwork.
  3. Find a time when things are quiet to explain to your child about learning and other disabilities and the frustrations and difficulties they can cause. Remind him that you love all your children no matter how well they do in school and no matter how they behave in and out of the home. Talk to your child about the concept of unconditional love. Help him understand that his sibling with LD or other disabilities needs his unconditional love and support as well as that of his parents. Offer your child a comparison of the family as a chain: each link must do its part to hold things together -- to stay strong and supportive -- no matter what.