When One Child Takes Up The Bulk Of Your Attention

by Cameron Kleimo
Originally Published: 
Mom holding her two sons while sitting on the bench
Courtesy of Cameron Kleimo

My older son, Hunter, is an incredible kid. He’s curious, bright, hysterically funny, quirky and, at times, sweet (his empathy is a work in progress!).

AND he’s our “squeaky wheel.”

Since infancy, his sensory processing challenges have manifested in a lot of challenging behaviors that have demanded an inordinate amount of attention. Even though my younger son, Cruz, also has sensory processing challenges, his are much milder. He’s always been the “easier” child.

Hunter’s sensitivities often require special accommodations that leave Cruz with the short end of the stick. In comparison to Cruz, Hunter is more susceptible to sensory overload, quicker to melt down, less flexible, more anxious, and has required more services (OT, PT, speech, vision therapy), more visits to the doctor, and overall, is more demanding of our attention.

In addition to requiring more in terms of time and energy, my husband and I have also felt like we’re constantly walking on eggshells around Hunter. In an effort to keep the peace and avoid his frequent, explosive meltdowns, we’ve been guilty of catering to him, sometimes at the expense of Cruz.

One incident that stands out happened a couple of years ago when we took the boys to see a holiday boat parade. As we settled in on the crowded lawn overlooking the water, Hunter spotted a woman selling several different light-up toys and asked if he could get one. My frugal husband reluctantly agreed.

Upon returning with a light-up balloon, H spotted another woman selling more “cool” toys and asked if he could go get one. To which my husband immediately snapped, “NO! You CANNOT get another toy. I just got you one.”

Already on the verge of sensory overload due to the crowd, the noise-level and the change in routine (it was fast approaching his usual bedtime), and not one to give up easily, Hunter began to fall apart. “But, Daddy, PLEEEAAASSSEEE!” he whined.

As soon as he started whining, I did a mental fast-forward and knew exactly where this was heading. I knew I was making a “bad” parenting decision, but I really wanted to enjoy the boat parade as a family, so I replied, “Come on, Hunter, we can go look at the other toys.” If looks could kill, my husband’s glare would have killed me on the spot.

I took both boys over to look at the other “cool” toys and after a good ten minutes of scrutinizing Every. Single. Toy., Hunter finally decided on one. Of course Cruz had picked his out in the first few seconds and was happily playing with it while he patiently waited for Hunter. When I handed the woman my credit card, she frowned and said, “Sorry, cash only.” Now it was my look that could have killed.

Cue a meltdown akin to Adam Sandler’s in Happy Gilmore when he has difficulty putting the ball into the hole.

As Hunter garnered the attention of the large crowd of boat parade attendees, Cruz watched silently. Cut to me picking up Hunter and carrying him to the car kicking and screaming while my husband tended to Cruz and packed up our stuff.

So much for the boat parade.

Hunter continued screaming the entire way home while Cruz sat silently and played with his toy. Even now I feel choked up thinking about it.

If I could go back in time, the minute Hunter started carrying on about wanting a second toy, I would have picked him up, taken him to the car and sat with him until he calmed down and was ready to return. My husband and Cruz could have still enjoyed the parade and Hunter would have been given an opportunity to work on his self-regulation.

Sadly, this scenario was not an aberration. In an effort to keep the peace, I’ve made many, many horrible parenting decisions over the years. As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease and Hunter has gotten plenty of it. Sigh.

There are many nights when I lie awake with a heavy heart, feeling guilty and sad about everything both boys have been through and wondering how this is all going to pan out.

Through intentional work on shifting this parenting dynamic as well as the developmental support and accompanying growth Hunter has gained through sensory integration therapy, his behavior has significantly improved and the disparity in attention has lessened. But, I worry about how the more “dicey” years have affected Cruz.

Courtesy of Cameron Kleimo

I worry about Cruz feeling jealous of the extra attention Hunter has received (negative attention is still attention!) and feeling like he has to compensate for Hunter’s behavior. I worry that he might feel confused by Hunter’s challenges, that he doesn’t understand why Hunter lashes out with explosive meltdowns. I worry that he may feel like he’s responsible in some way. And I worry that Hunter taking up so much space with his emotions causes Cruz to suppress his. Bigger sigh.

There are many nights when I lie awake with a heavy heart, thinking about my relationship with Cruz, his relationship with Hunter, feeling guilty and sad about everything both boys have been through and wondering just how this is all going to pan out.

My worries are not unfounded. Research shows that it’s common for children who have a sibling with developmental challenges to feel:

– Worried about sibling

– Jealous of the attention sibling receives

– Angry that they don’t get the same attention

– Resentful

– Embarrassed of sibling

– Pressured to be the “perfect” kid

– Guilty for having negative feelings

– Confused about the sibling’s challenges

– Like they’re not allowed to express their feelings

– Like their problems are minimized or dismissed

– Isolated

– Like they have to grow up too quickly

– Overly responsible and independent

– Neglected by parents

If you’re like me (a worrier!), reading this long and daunting list probably triggers some anxiety. Don’t fret! While there are certainly many challenges when a child grows up with a sibling who has special needs, there’s also an upside.

Research also shows that it’s common for children who have a sibling with developmental challenges to also have more:

– Empathy

– Patience

– Resilience

– Acceptance of others

– Willingness to help others

– Reliability

– Kindness

On the nights that I lie in bed heavy-hearted, I remind myself of these advantages and, rather than indulging my worries, I set specific parenting intentions to help better meet Cruz’s needs.

In an effort to keep the peace and avoid his frequent, explosive meltdowns, we’ve been guilty of catering to our son, sometimes at the expense of his brother.

Here are 6 intentions to ensure your typically developing (or non-squeaky wheel) child’s needs are being met:

1. Get more support. Remember the cardinal rule of motherhood: Put the oxygen mask on yourself first! We can’t support our children if we’re drowning. If you can’t remember the last time you did something for yourself and/or you’re feeling alone in your parenting struggles, it’s time to reach out for support.

2. Be open with your children about their sibling’s struggles. Keeping your atypically developing child and his siblings in the dark about his challenges can cause more harm than good. The well-known 12-step program adage, “you’re only as sick as your secrets,” sums it up — when a child’s challenges are kept hush-hush, they’re more likely to elicit feelings of shame, both for the child and for other family members.

It’s possible to keep your explanations developmentally appropriate and to frame your child’s challenges in a positive and empowering way.

3. Increase special time with each child. Scheduling a specified amount of daily, uninterrupted one-on-one time with each of your children is your number one intervention. If you’re going to focus on one intervention for your typically developing child, make it this one.

4. Normalize your child’s feelings. It’s difficult for siblings of children with developmental challenges to process the mixed emotions (jealousy, anger, sadness, guilt) they feel about their brother or sister. Be deliberate about talking with your typically developing child about his feelings and letting him know that whatever he’s feeling is okay.

You might say something like, “Your sister’s been having a hard time lately and she’s been having a lot of challenging behaviors that are taking up mommy’s attention. You might be feeling angry or sad that you’re not getting as much of mommy’s attention. Lots of kids feel that way when they have a sister who has some extra challenges and that’s okay. Whatever you’re feeling is okay.”

5. Create a safe place for your child to express his feelings. After you’ve normalized your child’s feelings, you’ll want to help him find ways to express them. With younger children, you can prompt them to draw a picture of their feelings. During special time, pay close attention and take note if they’re acting out any of their feelings through play so you can join in and provide more opportunities for their expression.

Encourage older kids to keep a journal about their feelings and set aside time each week for them to have a “vent” session during which they can talk out their gripes, worries and/or frustrations with you.

6. Simplify your schedule. Too many transitions during the day doesn’t bode well for anyone. When your schedule is simplified, you (and your kids) feel calmer and you can better prioritize everyone’s needs. It’s hard not to succumb to the pressure of involving your kids in every activity, but try to take a less is more approach and cut out anything that’s causing stress.

Courtesy of Cameron Kleimo

This is especially important for parents of kids who are receiving extra intervention. Between their interventions (OT, PT, speech, tutoring etc.), sports, and homework, it’s easy for the schedule to get out of hand. Our rule of thumb is one intervention and one sport at a time — trying to do too much at once becomes counterproductive.

The goal is to create a schedule that allows for daily special time with each child.

Putting some of these intentions in place will create an emotional buffer for your typically developing child and will help ensure that his needs are being given the same attention and importance as your atypically developing child’s.

The following symptoms/behaviors are signs that your typically developing child needs additional support:

– Changes in eating/sleeping habits

– Physical symptoms: headaches, stomach aches

– Perfectionism

– Poor concentration

– Poor self-esteem

– Increased separation anxiety

– Frequent crying or worrying

– Withdrawal

– Loss of interest in activities

If you notice any of these, talk to your pediatrician and ask for a referral to a child therapist.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Parenting is hard. Parenting a child with extra needs is especially hard. If you’re struggling to keep your head above water, you’re not alone. Take a deep breath, give yourself some grace and know that it’s possible to turn things around. You and your kids are going to be okay. No matter what. You’ve got this, mama!

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