LIVINGSTON, NJ — Earlier this month, Jewish Family Service (JFS) of MetroWest and Greater MetroWest ABLE partnered to offer a Sibling Support Group in order to help children and tweens express and share their feelings about having a special needs sibling.

The group, which is held at the JFS MetroWest headquarters in Livingston, is offered to children ages 8 to 13 whose siblings have a mental or physical disability.

“It’s a great outlet for the kids with special needs siblings,” said Jodi Fox, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who facilitates the group. “They are able to express their feelings in a safe place where they are heard and validated.”

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According to Fox, the support group extremely beneficial due to the many similarities that attendees share.

For instance, many of them often feel guilty knowing that they will someday be able to drive, attend college and do other things that their sibling won’t have the opportunity to do.

Fox added that many of them feel a need to behave a certain way and live up to high expectations so that their parents can focus their attention helping their special needs child. She also noted that the siblings are sometimes hesitant to approach their parents with certain needs or problems for fear of being a burden.

Although parents often have trouble getting their children to talk about how they feel, Fox said participating children and tweens are very responsive to sharing stories with others who have had similar experiences. By providing a space for kids to share their feelings about public sibling meltdowns and other experiences that come with having a special needs family members, the support groups helps kids see that there are other people dealing with similar situations to their own, she added.

Fox shared that parent and children survey responses have been universally positive. Parents observe that their children hate missing a support group meeting and are happy on nights that they attend, she said.

Additionally, some children have been more expressive to their parents about what they need after attending one or more sessions.

“The sessions are loosely based on Sibshops, a workbook with open questions that encourage siblings to think about how they feel,” said Fox, who shared the fill-in-the-blank sample question, “If I could tell my (parents, teachers, friends) one thing about my sibling it would be _____.”

Another technique Fox uses during group support sessions is picking discussion topics from a hat. One piece of paper might prompt the child to tell her about a time that he or she was embarrassed by his or her sibling, while another might prompt the child to tell her about a time her or she helped his or her sibling.

According to Fox, the group is intended to help the young participants to examine and express their feelings. Being surrounded by people who also experience a version of their reality enables them to confront their emotions and work through them rather than suppress or repress them, she said.

Rebecca Wanatick, manager of community inclusion and program services JFS MetroWest, explained that the Greater MetroWest ABLE program, which raises awareness and works to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness, “seeks to create a community made whole by the meaningful inclusion of all its members.”

She explained that the Livingston-based Sibling Support Group was created because parents involved in the program expressed concern that their neurotypical siblings didn’t have any support despite the many support resources made available for individuals with special needs. Parents also felt that neurotypical children would benefit from spending time with peers experiencing similar situations, she said.

“ABLE approached JFS MetroWest and JFS of Central NJ about beginning groups to help support the identified need,” said Wanatick. “With the support of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, both JFS agencies have successfully implemented groups that continue to grow and support siblings.”

Sibling Support Group sessions are held on Monday evenings from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at JFS MetroWest, located at 570 W. Mount Pleasant Avenue, Suite 106, in Livingston.

To register or to learn more, contact Fox at jfox@jfsmetrowest.org or 973-637-1777.