Many factors affect how a sibling adjusts. However, children’s reactions are certainly influenced by the responses of people around them, including their families. In order to support your children try to:
Care for self
Find support for yourself. It is easy to put others’ needs before your own, but you will be more able to help others if you can access as much practical and emotional support as possible from friends, family and professionals. If you have a partner, make time for that relationship and try to maintain your regular networks of friends and family. You may find you lose some friends but you are likely to make new ones.
Try to attend a parent workshop on sibling support by Siblings Australia or other agencies. Read books about sibling needs. See the list of suitable books on the Siblings Australia website.
Information for child
Give children information about the disability/illness at their level of understanding, increasing the detail as they age or ask questions. Let them know it is okay to ask questions. Help them understand the needs of their brother or sister. Books can help with this. Also try to help them develop ways to have fun with their brother or sister with disability. Professionals may be able to help with this.
Listen to your children and try to ‘walk in their shoes’. Let them know you understand that it can be difficult for them sometimes.
Help share feelings
Help children express their feelings – both good and not so good. Keep in mind that ALL siblings love and loathe each other at different times. Set an example by showing it is okay to share difficult feelings. Sometimes drawing or writing a journal can also help them to express their feelings. Try not to say things like “you should feel lucky that you don’t have a disability”.
Watch for signs of stress
All children have stresses from time to time, unrelated to being a sibling. However, if a child shows signs of stress as mentioned in our Signs of Stress document you could explore if there might be sibling issues.
Give skills to cope
Help your child to learn how to cope with difficult situations, e.g., others’ reactions. For example, you might practice what they can say if someone says upsetting things about their brother or sister with disability. Help them find activities that help them to de-stress such as physical activity or music.
Help each child feel special – try to spend one-on-one time and celebrate all family members’ achievements. Help your family to recognise each other’s strengths and weaknesses. As one child said, “Hey mum, Aaron has autism, I have asthma, what do you have?”
Let your children know that you appreciate their help but try to not overload them with responsibility. Help them to develop their own independence and interests.
Contact with other siblings
Try to encourage your children to have contact with other siblings – either informally through family friends or agencies that support you or through a formal sibling support program. There are also online resources for siblings. See the Siblings Australia website.
Help your children to take part in community activities so they can interact with other children. Try to spend time with extended family or friends.
If you think your children might worry about the future, encourage them to talk through their concerns. They might benefit from professional support with these or other worries.
Keep in mind that there are other people who can support your children who are siblings.
Family and friends might include them in their own family activities. They might be able to help in other ways such as transporting your child to community activities if this is difficult for you.
Some disability or health agencies provide formal support services for siblings. Check the Siblings Australia directory of services. Some agencies provide flexible support options that include respite, where your child with disability can mix with others and develop some independence. Other options might help your family to engage in activities together.
‘Circles of support’, which are informal support networks for a child/adult with disability can enrich their lives in a number of ways. The whole family can benefit from such networks being in place.
Professional counseling may also help individuals or the whole family to manage the challenges or cope with particular concerns.
Schools can and should play a role in supporting all of your children. The section for teachers on the Siblings Australia website provides a range of ideas on how to support siblings at school. If you have concerns about whether to send your children to the same school see the section, School Choices. Whilst you may be tired of advocating for your child with disability, sometimes it is important to raise awareness about the needs of siblings too.
Siblings Australia provides workshops, webinars and one-on-one sessions for parents (some can be included in an NDIS Participant Plan) on how to support siblings. It also works with professionals to improve the services available for families and, in particular, siblings. If you would like more information about these please contact us
Strohm K E Siblings: Brothers and Sisters of Children with Disability, Revised edition 2014. Wakefield Press.