How to help a sibling of a child with a disability deal with responsibility and emotions

Connecticut Families

WEST HARTFORD – “He can name all the whales – I can barely name half,” says 12-year-old Gavin Kaminski, as he plays with his little brother, Quaid. The boys are just 22 months apart – close in age, close as companions.

“Gav always looks out for him,” says their dad, Adam.

“I’m very protective about him – I don’t like it when people say bad things about him,” says Gavin.

Quaid has autism. Sometimes Gavin is his voice and, oftentimes, this 7th grader must be patient as his parents tend to his brother’s needs.

“Being a tween-ager is hard enough,” says mom Jamie. “Then being a teenager who has a life at home where your bother, at any time, could scream at the movie or run away – we’re always on high alert.”

It’s the life of a sibling of a child with a disability – a role that’s complicated – filled with many responsibilities and dueling emotions. And, the sometimes overlooked need to deal with those feelings. “We realized, wow, this was something we hadn’t given any attention to,” says Jamie.

“It presents a series of challenges and those challenges are real on a day to day basis,” says Dr. Laura Saunders of Hartford Healthcare’s Institute of Living, noting that it’s not unusual for siblings to feel jealousy, guilt or even embarrassment at times – and talking is key. “I think it’s so important for parents to label these emotions for these kids. The sooner we label something as being okay or typical, it settles that feeling and doesn’t cause it to act out in other ways.”

“Sometimes when I feel a little bit left out, I ask Dad if he wants to go to the tennis court on the weekend and it’s nice because I get to play with someone who’s really good,” says Gavin who is starting to advocate for himself. His parents hope the skills he’s learned from his brother, like being flexible and kind, will last him a lifetime.

“I just think it’s going to make him a better man as he gets older,” says Adam.

Coming up on Wednesday, we take a look at a local support group that’s helped Gavin and other siblings find a community of peers who offer valuable understanding.

WEB EXTRA: Dr. Laura Saunders of Hartford Healthcare’s Institute of Living on how to help a sibling deal with emotions

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