By Gail Heaton, MA
It wasn’t until many years after we adopted that I realized I expected too much of my resident children. I assumed because they didn’t speak up that they weren’t experiencing stress and anxiety; that there were no real issues between them and their new brothers; no real issues with the amount of energy I was putting forth on the twins; no real problems dealing with the amount of general stress in the house. In reality, my resident children experienced a great deal of stress and anxiety, but I did not know what to look for.
Stress and anxiety are all-too-common problems faced by resident siblings to a special needs brother or sister. Younger children may not be able to fully make sense of their feelings. Older kids may understand them, but still not feel comfortable sharing their feelings with parents. This is especially true if the parents are already dealing with issues with the special needs sibling; resident kids won’t want to bother their parents with their own problems. When you know to look for signs of stress and anxiety in your child, and are aware of the kinds of things resident kids face, you will better catch problems before they further impact them.
Do be aware that children respond differently to stress depending on their age, personalities, temperaments, and the coping skills they have developed. It takes a little detective work on your part, but you can spot the signs.
Signs of Anxiety in Children
Some common signs of stress and anxiety include:
- New development of a nervous habit, such as nail-biting, hair pulling or twisting
- Withdrawing from family or friends
- Refusal to go to school or play with others
- Getting into trouble at school
- Regression to a younger age such as thumb-sucking, throwing tantrums, engaging in baby-talk or suddenly needing a nightlight at bedtime
- Increased aggression, short temper
- Increased clinginess
- Memory or concentration problems
- Mood swings, moodiness
- New fears (fear of the dark, of being alone, or of their own safety)
- New trouble controlling emotions
- Decreased or increased appetite
- Complaints of stomach aches, headaches, other aches and pains
- Sleep problems or nightmares
- Diarrhea or constipation, nausea, dizziness (can also be signs of medical issues not related to stress and anxiety, seek your medical professional)
- Chest pain, rapid heart rate
- Dilated pupils, flushed face
Common Causes of Sibling Stress
The source of stress and anxiety can have external and internal causes, such as changing family dynamics or internal feelings and pressures. Some common causes of sibling stress in resident children include:
Big Changes in the Family Structure
Just getting a new sibling (whether through birth, fostering, or adoption) is a major life change in itself that can lead to stress in children. Any new sibling can make a resident child feel threatened and jealous. Add to that the uncertainties of how their new sibling became available for fostering or adoption and this can trigger fears about death, abandonment, abuse, and neglect. Any of these scenarios can shake your resident child’s sense of security.
Caring for special needs children and also attending to the needs of the typically developing resident child can overload most parents on some days. These days can string together. The inevitable cracks in parents’ I have it all together facade can lead to an overwhelming sense of powerlessness for the child who witnesses their parent’s struggles. Children may feel that they want to help, or should help, but don't have the ability to do so. This is equally true for the resident child wanting to help their sibling, but being powerless to do so.
Too Many Changes in Schedules
Special needs children often have additional appointments and activities parents need to attend to that can wreak havoc with the resident child’s existing schedule. Constantly having to change plans to accommodate the sibling’s needs can cause a great deal of stress for children who then have to deal with those last-minute changes. This is especially difficult on resident siblings who lose out on family activities due to the poor behavior of their sibling.
Pressure to Always Be Positive
Many resident children experience anxiety about wanting to always be welcoming or understanding to their foster or adopted sibling. This kind of pressure is particularly common in siblings of special needs children. Believing “no matter how bad I have it, it will never be as bad as what my brother experienced in the orphanage” is hard on children who also need to vent about their own struggles. They may feel overwhelmed with the mix of emotions welling up in them.
Secret Feelings of Shame or Embarrassment Toward Their Sibling
For most children, the need to fit in and be like every other kid is so strong, that anything that makes them stand out from their peers can be agonizing to them. Having to explain, or feeling like they will be judged by peers for their siblings’ sometimes strange behaviors can create inner turmoil for the resident sibling who both wants to defend their sister and also pretend that their family really is ‘normal’ like everyone else’s appears to be.
Bullying is a serious problem for some resident kids who’s sibling physically or verbally targets them. Resident children will not automatically report these sibling-on-sibling acts of aggression, so strong is the unwritten code of conduct: you don’t snitch on others. Siblings who are bullied by their own brothers or sisters are often embarrassed about being targeted, or feel that they should handle it on their own, or don’t want to call any more
attention to additional issues their already harried parents would now face.
How to Help Your Child
I can file this whole topic in the compartment I have in my mind called: what I wish I knew then, but only now know. My resident children, now all adults, experienced every one of these stressors above. Some of them experienced more than one. I very much rely on my mantra: once you know better, you can do better. In the years since my own resident children were kids, I have learned a great deal about some of the signs of stress and anxiety. Had I known then, I could have supported them, either by myself, or sought outside support. Sometimes all they would have needed was a listening ear or to share their experiences with others who ‘get it’ without judgment. Other times, professional support would have been the best solution.
Below are some simple ways you can offer guidance to your resident child to help them cope and respond in healthy ways to stress and anxiety:
- Make your home a calm, safe, and secure place to come to, sometimes this might just be a small section of the house that is used for a quiet place. If even a small space is not possible, then arrange for them to have frequent respite at a friend’s house, or other family member’s house from time to time.
- Create a new routine or activity for every activity that had to go by the way-side to accommodate the special need sibling. Lower your expectations for family dinners or game nights so that you can still have them; keep family traditions a priority. Routine can prevent anxiety and help relieve stress.
- Monitor your child's interactions with siblings and have periodic check-ins to make sure everything is ok.
Let Them Know What’s Going On
- Give your child a heads up on any anticipated changes that occur that affect them and their schedule due to the sibling’s special needs.
- Involve your child in social and sports activities where they can have a respite from family issues and can shine in their own right.
- Increase the opportunities where your child has control over a situation in their life. Let them know you recognize the efforts they are making.
- Especially for older kids, include them in some family decisions that affect them and others.
Create More Connection with Your Kids
- Make eye contact and get on their level to speak to them.
- Provide many more opportunities to say “yes” to them.
- Use positive reinforcement and always remember to connect with them first before you correct misbehavior.
- Practice active listening without solving their problems for them. Let them vent when necessary without judgment.
- Monitor for new signs and behaviors of unresolved stress.
- Adopt healthy habits yourself such as exercise, self-care, and respite to manage your own stress levels. Children imitate what they see more than what they are told.
Sometimes the stress and anxiety your child is experiencing is beyond your ability to manage with them. It is important for you to know that some children may have an anxiety disorder, which is beyond the scope of this article; they can benefit from professional help. Seek the advice of your health care provider, counselor, or therapist if, after implementing some of these suggestions, your child continues to become or increases signs of being withdrawn, depressed, deeply unhappy, or if their issues seem to be beyond the examples given in this article.
Where to Go From Here
If your resident children have been struggling for a while now, the best way to address what you didn’t know in the past, is just to start now to create new and deeper connections with your child from this point forward. By letting them know you see and hear them now, you can build strong connections to them so that they will come to you about these things in the future. You can use the suggestions above to create an environment that is more conducive to reducing their stress load, even in situations where the stressor remains the same. You can have open and honest conversations with them about some the things you have learned through this article and let them know that you are here for them.
Healing from past stress and anxiety does continue even now, even years later, as your children experience the truth that they matter to you and always did. It’s never too late.
If you are just starting out fostering or adopting with children already in the home, now is also a perfect time to step up the connections with your children, to keep their love tanks full and let them know that you are here for them when they experience any of these situations.