When there is a child with a disability in a family, it's important to remember that each family member - including siblings - can be affected in different ways.
When there’s a child with a disability in a family, it’s natural for other siblings to feel different emotions or react in certain ways.
Not all brothers and sisters of kids with a disability will feel or react in the same way – and factors such as age, family size, and severity of their sibling’s disability can all play a role.
And of course these feelings can chop and change over time – they may go up and down, or even be conflicting.
We take a look at how siblings of children with a disability may feel and some handy advice for parents.
Sometimes families often find that when they have a child with a disability, sibling rivalry increases, and the green-eyed monster may come out!
Typically, it’s because kids are very much aware of the level of attention their brothers or sisters receive, and they may feel that their sibling receives more than they do.
Kids can sometimes also feel resentful towards their sibling or even to you, as parents, because the family rules that apply to them are not always enforced on their sibling.
For example, a child with a disability may be given fewer responsibilities around the house, or the sibling may need to help ‘take care’ of their brother or sister.
They may also feel resentful that their sibling’s needs may mean that the family are unable to do certain activities as easily as others, such as going away on holiday.
As children grow and start school, they make friends and often place great value around what their friends think. A child may feel embarrassed about how their sibling looks or behaves when in the presence of others – especially peers.
He or she may worry about what others think of their sibling, and even fear that they could lose their friends because of it.
Children can often feel sad about their brother or sister’s disability. They might wish that they could have a ‘normal’ family life – just like they see in other families. They may also wish that their sibling could do as much as they can and play in the same way as they do.
Others may feel loneliness and think that nobody understands them, and see themselves as ‘different’ from the other children and families.
A child may also worry about what the future holds for themselves, their brother or sister, and their family. Younger children may worry that they may develop a disability themselves, or that the health of their sibling may worsen, or that one day they may even lose them.
Often children can have a very close relationship with their brother or sister who has a disability, and they may feel proud of their sibling and what they are achieving.
For example, if their sibling learns something new, or wins an award at school, or does well in sport, your child may feel happy and proud.
At times children who have a brother or sister with a disability can see themselves as their protector, almost acting as a mini-parent.
Because the school playground can be a tough place for all kids at times, a child with a disability can be picked on by other children. For a sibling, seeing their brother or sister being bullied can be extremely challenging and hurtful.
As a result they can act to this in different ways. Some will feel anger and may try to protect their sibling and stop the bullying, while others may feel afraid of getting bullied themselves if they try to step in.
While it can be challenging for a child to have a brother or sister with a disability, it can also be a fantastic and positive experience. Many families actually find they are drawn closer by their shared experiences, as they bond and work together.
Studies have shown that children who have a sibling with a disability show more caring behaviour – this is thought to be because they have learned to empathise from an early age.
If your child is having difficulty adjusting or coping, here are some suggestions which may help.
It’s important that you make sure your child knows that each member of the family is equally as important.
Try and spend some time together, just the two of you, doing something that they love. This may be as simple as cooking, going to the park, or grabbing an ice-cream – even just a few minutes a day will help them feel as if they are not always competing for attention.
Being part of a sports team or club, and celebrating your child’s achievements through these can also help them to feel good, build their self-esteem, and express their individuality.
It also helps to give each child their own space. While it is not always possible to have their own room, a dedicated space to call their own such as a section of the living room, can be helpful.
Encourage your child to talk openly with you. It’s best not to dismiss their feelings, and to let them know that it’s ok to feel the way they do. These thoughts and feelings don’t make them a bad brother or sister!
If they have any questions, also be as honest as possible – it’s good to be positive but realistic about your answers.
If your child is worried about what others may think, talk through the reactions that people may have, and how this may make them feel – again it’s ok for them to feel upset.
Helping them to develop a response such as, “John is just the same as everybody else, his body just works a little bit differently” can also help.
Support groups can also be a great way for children to meet others in a similar situation, share, learn about disability, and find ways of handling those tricky situations. This can also be a space where they feel they can vent without disapproval, and feel less isolated.
Our Children’s Services can help your child to be more independent, adapt to their environment, and help get ready for child care, kindergarten, or school. Get in touch with our team to find out more.
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