"You are going to have a little sister," you tell your six-year-old son. After a fairly normal pregnancy, it turns out that your daughter was born with a birth injury that has left her with a limp, cerebral palsy or similar condition that will change how the whole family operates. Not only is there shock and potential concern on the part of you and your spouse, but you also have to help your son adjust to the situation. What do you do?
Learn Realistic Expectations from Your Doctor
Children who are born with birth injuries like cerebral palsy may be able to regain some mobility through physical therapy and other medical treatments. You never want to be negative in explaining the situation to your children without disability, and that is less likely if you have a clear understanding of what the prognosis is.
Keep in mind that many aspects of a disorder's progression may only be known with some probability, but it does offer at least some sort of starting point when speaking to your children.
Focus on the Positives but Be Realistic
You may want to start with a brief description of what your child's new brother or sister can or can't do. If they already have some understanding, however, ask them what they know (or think they know) about what growing up with their little brother or sister will be like.
Either way, you want to start by asking what their fears and concerns are. Not only can you address them but you can file them away in your own mind as issues to remember and consider as you try to figure out how your family can best support each other as the children grow up. Be sure to include any activities that they may be able to do to help their brother or sister.
Evaluate Your Own Actions
A number of children report that they resent their siblings with a disability like cerebral palsy or a related issue stemming from a birth injury. Many times it simply is not possible to manage two or more children and not spend a lot more time helping your disabled son or daughter.
At the same time, it can feel more rewarding to help your child with cerebral palsy walk across the living room than it is to struggle through multiplication with his or her sister. Family members need to assess whether they are providing adequate attention to all their children. While it is important for young ones to know that the scale may be slightly weighted towards the one with a disability, letting it slide even further may be due to the actions of one parent or another.
More importantly, you may be exhausted after a long day helping your disabled son or daughter. Always remember that while families with disabled children need to have different expectations for their roles, your other children should not have responsibilities they aren't mature enough to complete such as discipline or even feeding for younger brothers and sisters.
Jonathan Rosenfeld is an attorney who represents families in medical malpractice and birth injury cases. Learn more about Jonathanís work also by visiting http://www.cerebral-palsy-faq.org.