Take Good Care of My Baby: Being a Youngest Child With a Disability

Hi readers,

You have been very patient, so here’s the next post in our birth order series. This one focuses on the youngest kids, simply because the oldest always gets to go first. (Oldest kids, hang in there, you’re next).

I believe youngest and oldest children may have more stereotypes attached to them than middles or onlies because their positions are more easily defined. For example, the youngest child is generally characterized as:

-A performer
-A charmer who gets away with things he or she shouldn’t
-A lover of people, though this may not = extraversion per se
-Coddled, even in adulthood
-Having a sense that they are special (and as Dr. Leman says, they will remind you every few minutes lest you forget)
-Sometimes rebellious; likely to go in totally different directions from the siblings above them

Now in some cases, these are true. For example, I’m the older sister to a younger brother, and he is a charmer and a born salesman. I swear, the man could sell milk to dairy farmers. He also has a tendency to do things, and get away with things, I would never do because he’s more comfortable bending or breaking rules. For instance: he’s a cable guy (every couch potato’s hero) and a huge Oakland Raiders fan. Thus, in his world every other team might as well not exist. He once went to the home of a client who was a Buffalo Bills fan and had appropriate memorabilia all over the house. My brother insulted her team to her face–and she laughed. Had I done that, I probably would’ve gotten kicked out. But I’m used to hearing stories like that because it’s how the kid has been from day one. if I got a B, it felt like a letdown. Meanwhile, he’s all, “Whoo-hoo, a D! I passed!” I’m a one-man-at-a-time gal. He went through several short-term girlfriends before finding my wonderful sister-in-law (who knows I will smack him if he misbehaves). 🙂 He got away with stuff while I got the classic line: “You’re older and should know better.” But, he can always make me laugh. He’s brave enough to bend the rules I won’t touch. And he is special.

But what if you’re the youngest and “special” also means you have a disability? Well, as we have discussed, I don’t like “special” as a descriptor for any PWD, but since every child is special (and since the youngest has a tendency to remind us), I’ll let it slide here. The point is, for a youngest child, position in itself can come with benefits and fallout. Whether a disability is part of the benefits or the negatives depends on how it’s handled. Let’s examine that now.

As mentioned, the youngest child’s position is easier to define than a middle, but there are scenarios that can affect your position and disability. So:

The Classic Baby: Exactly what it sounds like. No matter how many kids are in your family, you were born last in line. You’re probably fussed over and coddled, at least when you’re little and often into teen years and adulthood. If you have a disability, it’s likely that one of two things will happen: the coddling turns into overprotection and/or making excuses for bad behavior, or the coddling is actually less pronounced than usual. Here’s my advice for either scenario:
-Too much babying/coddling: Be careful that you don’t fall into a trap of entitlement, especially if your parents have a naturally permissive style. Parents, you’ll have to delineate early between what is unacceptable behavior and what behavior has disability-related roots. If you are an adult and already find yourself acting entitled, even without meaning to, it’s not too late to change. Your siblings may feel resentful, or they may pity you and not see you as a “whole” person. Do what you can to make amends and ask others to come alongside you.
-Too little babying or attention: This can be a positive thing if your parents used it as an opportunity to help you reach your potential. For example, let’s say Kurt is the youngest child of five and is also blind. His parents give him the help and support he needs, but realistically, they also know they’ve got four older kids, so their attitude becomes, “Kurt, as much as possible, you need to do things for yourself and be your own advocate.” That’s great, and it means Kurt will become a better-adjusted person more able to survive in a world of people without disabilities.

However, if Kurt’s parents–or any youngest child’s parents–use the presence of siblings to say stuff like, “Stop whining,” “You can do this/you better learn,” “I won’t put up with your excuses,” then, TWEET! That’s my whistle–I call foul. Every child needs attention, and like it or not, the youngest may need more because it takes them longest to grow up in most cases. If you are a youngest child who feels pushed to the side, get help from siblings, teachers, even counselors. If you are an adult who was treated like this and still feels the sting, confide in a family member or friend you trust. They can help you start healing the hurt and hopefully get your parents to understand that pushing your child doesn’t mean running them over.

The Baby Who Wasn’t: This is what happens when the youngest child was born 5+ years after the sibling directly above him or her. Dr. Kevin Leman actually has a case in his own family. His first three kids were born within a few years of each other, but his two daughters Hannah and especially Lauren were late pregnancies. Thus, as he says, Lauren was born saying, “Okay world, here I am, let’s get going.” She took on a lot of what we’d consider firstborn or only child characteristics–as can youngest kids if born into this situation. Advice for a couple different sub-scenarios:

-If you have siblings that act like second parents: They may smother you, trying to help you all the time when you don’t need it or making a big deal out of therapy/treatment. For example, let’s say Anna has dyscalculia, and every time her siblings want to play Monopoly, it’s, “Come on Anna, play with us so you can work on your math.” They probably do that because Mom or Dad have implicitly or explicitly sent the message that they should–but to Anna, man, is it annoying! Having siblings that are so much older, plus a disability, can also make Anna and kids like her feel as though they don’t really have a place in the family. They’re just that slow, messed-up kid everybody has to take care of. If this resonates with you, you may need a break from the family pack. Find social activities you like, and make friends in them who will see you for who you are. Work hard at developing interests and hobbies, making a name for yourself outside of “family mascot.” Remind your sibs that you have parents–you need brothers and sisters.

-If you’re a youngest child who tends to act older: Be careful not to boss people around or alienate them. Don’t use your disability and position as an excuse to get your own way. Don’t put pressure on yourself–if you’re a kid, act like a kid. You only have so long to do so (although we could all stand to be kids more often). Develop good rapport with siblings and friends so that when you need to, you can say, “I’m scared/mad/stressed/sad.” Particularly if you have a mild disability, speak up for yourself and your needs. Otherwise, your needs may get overlooked by accident.

-If your siblings are out of the house: You’ll have to work harder at building relationships, especially since your older siblings may learn to see your disability first. This is especially true if any of them are naturally nurturing or are studying fields that require nurturing (teaching, medicine, social work). Focus on what you can do, teaching siblings and friends to do the same. Spend time making and keeping friends so you have a good social network outside the family. Be careful not to draw into a shell. If you find yourself missing your siblings, ask parents, family members, or friends to schedule visits. Come up with special activities that are just for you and your sibling (or more than one activity, if you have more than one). Ask siblings for advice or help when they are around.

Sharing that Last Spot: The youngest child’s position is hard to “share,” but it can happen if two siblings are born a year or less apart. Marta and Gretl from The Sound of Music are a good example–Gretl was five and Marta was seven (at least, she told Maria she would be seven on Tuesday. 🙂 As with middles, sharing can mean you each get a break from parental over-attention and under-attention, but it can be tricky if one of you has a disability and the other doesn’t. For that, see my notes on middles with the same situation. Also, be aware that there may be squabbles over parental attention or who was helped or loved more, even into adulthood. You may need outside help with repairing those issues if they’re deep enough.

Basic Tips for Youngest Kids with Disabilities:
-Avoid a sense of entitlement, esp. as you get older
-Build a social network and try lots of different activities when possible, especially those that reflect your interests and passions. This can help make your disability less of a focal point and help you learn to work with teams and groups. This can be vital when you have to speak up and ask for help or educate others about what you can do vs. what you can’t.
-Take a break from the family pack when necessary, even if that just means going to your room or a designated safe spot for awhile
-Remember that you CAN be independent. Youngest kids, disability or not, may have a rough time with this, and disabilities can make it worse. If you want to live on your own, take trips, or do other things your family doesn’t think you are ready for, remind them that life isn’t about “ready.” When you say you’re ready, you often are. Seek outside support when necessary and make your mark on the world. You are fully capable of growing up to be, and living as, a happy and functioning adult.
-Use the inborn traits that make you, yes, special. If you’re a performer or artistic, capitalize on it. If you’re extroverted, love and laugh with the people around you. Choose jobs and fields that use your skills. And, if you are an introvert, not a performer, or otherwise an atypical last child? Rejoice–you broke the mold. We need mold-breakers and earth-shakers. You can be one, and you can capitalize on your talents as well. In fact, being the youngest may improve your appeal: everybody likes a comeback kid, which is what the youngest sometimes is, disability or not. It may be that your star gets an extra bit of polish now and then.


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