dealing with multiple sen children
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Discovering that your child has special needs – which could be anything from a physical disability such as hearing impairment or cerebral palsy to the neurological challenges of autism or dyslexia – is one of the hardest situations parents can face. But it’s not uncommon for families to have more than one child with SEN – how do these mums and dads cope?

Siblings With SEN Often Understand Each Other

siblings helping each other

Luisa, who lives in Yorkshire, is the mum of two kids with special needs. Her son, James, is thirteen and has a diagnosis of autism and ADHD. Her daughter, Abby, is eleven and currently awaiting assessment for autism, ADHD and dyspraxia. Both children are at mainstream schools.

Having two children with similar challenges has both benefits and drawbacks, she explains. “In a way, it’s been easier because my son is older and was diagnosed first. His difficulties have always been very clear – you can’t ignore the fact that he’s struggling – but this has given us a frame of reference which has helped to identify my daughter’s needs. Being a girl, Abby presents very differently but they both struggle with friendships and things like using a knife and fork or tying shoelaces.”

Another plus, she says, is that James and Abby ‘get’ each other and will often play and laugh together – though they also fight like any siblings.

Simultaneous Meltdowns

both children sen meltdown

However, one of the biggest challenges at home, Luisa points out, is when both children are having meltdowns at the same time. “One of them might be screaming about the texture of something while the other is upset about school and curled up under a duvet,” she says. “Who do I go to first? I often find myself running back and forth between rooms. It’s exhausting – especially if my husband is away for work – as I’m trying to be several, different people in one moment!”

Luisa admits that at times she has felt alone and unheard while battling with schools to get her children the correct support. To combat this, she started a Facebook blog last year – ‘The Long Road – Diary of an SEN Mum’ – which documents some of the family’s struggles and is illustrated with her own, humorous cartoons. She’s received messages from many other mums and dads facing the same problems.

“Parents can feel trapped,” she concludes. “It’s important to know that you’re not on your own. We all need an outlet – mine is the blog but people could talk to friends, family or other SEN parents to let their emotions out.”

Dealing With Challenges Moment-to-Moment

parents helping just one child

Dr Joanna Griffin is a counseling psychologist and the author of the book, ‘Day by Day: Emotional Wellbeing in Parents of Disabled Children’. She also has a son with SEN. She agrees that parents who have more than one child with special needs often need to think on their feet and deal with any crises as they arise, prioritising what seems most important at that moment.

“This can mean the other sibling(s) have to just get on with things and may have unmet needs themselves,” she points out, “although interestingly, in my research a number of parents talked about overcompensating for the siblings and going over and above to ensure they never felt second-best. This put extra pressure on parents rather than just the acceptance (that you might have in a family with children without additional needs) that sometimes children don’t get their own way and have to put up with things.”

From ‘Worrier’ to ‘Warrior’

expert sen parent

Surprisingly, Griffin says that although having more than one child with SEN certainly increases the pressure on families, it doesn’t necessarily make mums more likely to be anxious or depressed.

“It might be because the mother has already adapted to the SEN world (I call this ‘reorienting’, moving away from mainstream expectations),” she explains. “This is often the tricky process in the early years – accepting life is different from how you expected it to be and having your eyes opened to the world of disability and difference. It’s a move from ‘worrier’ to ‘warrior’ but also embracing the new situation.”

Griffin adds that parents and carers of kids with SEN, whether or not they have more than one child with challenges, often feel enormous guilt. “It’s a massive issue for all sorts of reasons and I cover this in my book. We don’t need to give ourselves a hard time by piling on additional layers of pressure.”

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