My daughter has started throwing tantrums like her brother, who has special needs

Listen to what is challenging for her and thank her for the ways she helps in the family

Question: We have a six-year-old boy with an intellectual disability who is doing well after a few challenging years. Last year, he got a place in a special class which seems to be meeting his needs and he is much more settled.

However, now my daughter, who is nine, has started causing problems. She is throwing tantrums, having big mood swings, and being really difficult at home. She has always been such a helpful kind girl so it is all quite a shock. I know she suffered a lot with her brother growing up (who could do screaming tantrums for hours, which would upset everyone including her) and we tried our best to protect her. Ironically, it is only now that he is behaving better that she has started complaining about him. When we try to correct her about her own rudeness and tantrums, she says we are always picking on her and that never give out to him even though he does much worse than she does.

When I try to explain about his special needs and how he needs to be treated differently, she gets angrier.

What can we do to help her?


Answer: Children who have a brother or sister with special needs can experience special challenges growing up. As you mention in your question, busy parents trying to manage the many demands of a child with special needs, can easily neglect the needs of the sibling who appears to be coping. In disputes between brothers and sisters it is easy to take the side of the child who has special needs and to expect more from the sibling who does not.

All this can be difficult for children trying to find their place in the family and it is common for this to all come to a head with the sibling “acting out” and throwing their own tantrums. It is not uncommon to see this happening during settled times, when your daughter might feel there is finally space enough for her to assert her own needs (albeit indirectly via misbehaviour).

Take time to listen to her

In trying to respond, the first step is to try and understand what might going on with her, and to encourage her to talk about what is on her mind. When she says  in anger that she thinks you treat her brother differently and her unfairly, don’t immediately defend or explain this away and instead simply listen. Gently, inquire “how do you think we are picking on you?” and acknowledge her feelings: “That must be hard for you or I’m sorry if you feel upset about that.”

Often, what siblings most want is just to be understood and valued – they know that their brother has more needs than them (and that this will take up their parents’ time) – they just want to be acknowledged. As a result, take time to understand how things are going from your daughter’s perspective. Listen to what is challenging for her and make sure to appreciate and thank her for the different ways she helps you and her brother. Give her a positive message of how much you love her as well as her brother.

‘Check in’ with her about how she is dealing with her brother’s special needs

Though you have discussed her brother’s disability with her in the past, it is worth revisiting this conversation now and “checking in” again with her now that she is older. Ask  her how she understands her brother’s difficulties and how she thinks her relationship is going with him at the moment.

Consider what information and support she might need at this point. There are some great books for children who have a disabled brother or sister that you could read together. The website lists some great resources and also has a special course “sibshops” for siblings of children with special needs. At nine years of age it might be a great time for her to meet other children who are in a similar situation. Contact the services your son is in contact with and see what supports they can offer siblings.

Set aside special time with mum and dad

Make sure to prioritise your own special time with her, when you have time to connect and relax with her. Siblings of children with special needs can tolerate a lot, once they realise it does not get in the way of their own relationship with their parents. Having a routine of special times or activities that you keep “sacred” between the two of you is a good way to preserve your relationship and to facilitate communication.

Support her relationship with her brother

Siblings also often need special help to manage their relationship with their brother or sister with special needs. This can include help in managing communication or behaviour, finding things they can enjoy doing together and understanding how they can best care or help. How are things going between your daughter and her brother at the moment? What help might she need with this? The sibling resources listed above can help.

Finally, it is important to remember that while there can be challenges being a sibling of a child with special needs there can also be many benefits and most grown-up brother and sisters talk about the many positives that it brings into their lives. Just like their brothers and sisters, siblings need some special understanding and sensitivity from their parents.

Dr John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. For details of his courses and books, see