Watching my kids interact and have fun is a highlight of my life.
I appreciate the insignificant, mundane daily moments, such as Beckett teasing his brother about not ever wanting to brush his hair, but it’s the shining examples of the unspoken, organic bond they share that brings tremendous value. It’s a special thing to witness.
Last week a photographer friend, Nick Denny, came to River Soccer Club to shoot our TOPSoccer session, which is an outreach soccer program that provides special needs kids the opportunity to play the game with the assistance of volunteer neurotypical buddies, who are middle and high school students. Beckett, 15, always works with Carson, 13.
It’s fun to observe their interactions. They are essentially being knuckleheads and goofing around. There’s lots of laughing, insults, physical jabs and general good fun. It’s fun to watch from a distance. Nick was able to capture many of these moments, which can be viewed on his photography Facebook page.
I showed Beckett these photos and he just said, “yeah we are doing our thing.” What he doesn’t realize is this natural penchant for supporting and having fun with his brother is a special thing to his mom and me. He is a natural protector and advocate for his brother. This mentality is always there, but the fact is it’s exhausting for Beckett to always be present with his younger brother because he must adopt a different mindset when engaging with Carson. A high level of patience is a must, and let’s face it a 15-year-old teen in full puberty with his own set of life complexities and challenges is not always game for putting his little brother’s needs before him.
During TOPSoccer, however, this natural to connect and interact with his little brother is on full display. The smiles on our kids’ faces during their goofball sessions confirms the bond and special relationship they have built.
There’s things, like hugs and holding hands, Carson will let Beckett do to him that he won’t allow anyone else besides his mom and me. Carson has horrific social anxiety and is awkward. He comes across as unfriendly but he’s not. It’s an Autism thing, which makes him introverted and uneasy. It takes a while for him to warm up to strangers and even close family members.
As I watch Beckett and other siblings of special needs kids, I see first-hand they are gifted. It’s tough being the brother or sister to a special needs kids, especially those on low functioning end. We have all been through a tremendous amount in our life with Carson. There have been horrible outbursts, tantrums, seclusion and physical violence. Beckett has been on the receiving end of his share of physical and mental abuse. While I’m sure there’s resentment, it’s not evident today. Most of what I see is pure love, admiration and support for his little brother.
Our challenge as Beckett’s parent is to make sure he knows we appreciate him and we understand the unique and difficult position he is in.
There was an article in New York Times in May 11, 2020 by Keren Landman, a physician, journalist and special needs sibling, that really hit the mark on this unique dynamic. It gave me a lot to think about.
“The first thing is to recognize that the sibling experience parallels the parents’ experience,” said Emily Holl, director of the Sibling Support Project, a national program that works with siblings of people with disabilities. Like adults, children desperately want information about their siblings’ health, but they’re often excluded from the conversations parents have with doctors, social workers and therapists.
Holl recommends a proactive approach to informing siblings about a diagnosis. Find age-appropriate books that explain the condition and include siblings in visits with health care providers.
According to Dr. Milevsky, siblings of children with special needs often grow up quickly and feel a sense of responsibility for their siblings in a phenomenon often called parentification. This might seem like a positive outcome for parents — a good kid is one who takes some of the burden off her parents. But too much parentification can lead to behavioral problems and feelings of rejection.
It can also be profoundly nourishing for siblings to have short intervals of one-on-one time with their parents. “Leave room to talk about anything or nothing,” Holl said, including the child’s questions about her sibling or her own concerns. Keep the communication style open and use active listening so children feel heard. Let the moment be casual and unplanned. A car ride to soccer practice is long enough for meaningful together time; my mother set aside a few minutes at bedtime for a back rub and chitchat.
This unscheduled time allowed me to express feelings that were hard for my mom to hear, but that actually signified and helped cement healthy emotional connections. And it provided a starting point for problem-solving. My mother remembers a school psychologist telling her she was lucky when she heard I was grumbling that David got more attention than me. Complaining was far better than keeping my feelings bottled up.
And those grumbles opened the door to a path forward. “I remember that it hurt me,” said my mom. But “I wanted to do something about it.”