Let’s talk about teen siblings. Adolescence is a time of change, it’s the key time for developing more rational thinking and creating their own identity. It can be a topsy-turvy time as they juggle their changing bodies and emotions and start to think about the future.
When you add a brother or sister with disability into the mix, things can seem even more uncertain, and research tells us impacts youth mental health.
This blog will look at how the teen years can hold extra stresses for siblings but also it will explore the protective factors which can assist teen siblings developing mental health wellbeing and resilience.
There are some key factors which support young people navigate through these years, to ideally come out strong and resourceful on the other side. These include:
- Strong family connections
- Strong peer connections
- A sense of belonging at school or other activities, e.g., sport or music
- Help-seeking skills
Again, for young people who have a brother or sister with disability these factors can sometimes be more complex.
In terms of family, there can be added stresses associated with disability and trying to access the support needed. Teen siblings can feel that their concerns/feelings don’t matter to anyone else, which can lead to them feeling isolated in their family when the disability support needs of a brother or sister often take priority. They might not want to add to the stress of parents, so keep any worries to themselves. They may hesitate to ask for help elsewhere too.
With regard to identity and independence, on the one hand, they might be trying to move away a little, to pursue their own goals regarding career and relationships, but at times that might seem difficult. If the family is close, they might feel overly responsible for other family members and feel unsure or hesitant about developing independence
There might be:
- Sadness about their brother or sister not being able to do many of the things they can do, and then guilt about their own achievements
- A sense of unfairness that parents spend so much time with or focussed on the child/young person with disability
- Anger and or embarrassment about the behaviour of their brother or sister especially in front of friends
- Fears about the future and who will care for their brother or sister
- As they develop, there can be concerns about finding a partner who understands and accepts their brother/sister with disability. And moving into adulthood, concerns about creating their own family, genetic factors at play and how they would manage if they had a child with disability
As one teen sibling said, “I’m a twin but not just any old twin, my twin has á disability. It is extremely hard to cope with at times especially when I start thinking about all the great ‘twin things’ we could have got up to and how we would have helped each other out with absolutely everything. It hurts to feel that way at times and I wish with all my heart that she wouldn’t have this disability. I hate it when we go shopping and people stare at her like she’s from another planet – that really hurts and I feel angry with my sister for making people stare and then I feel angry with myself and guilty for feeling like that”.
Another twin who I worked with many years ago, felt enormous pressure to succeed, to be perfect for her parents. She was indeed an A grade student, but she had numerous stress related physical health problems.
With regard to peer relationships, teen siblings have said that other young people don’t understand what it is like to be a sibling of someone with a disability, and often siblings can become disconnected from peers whose lives can be so different and appear so perfect. The daily concerns of other siblings can seem trivial to a sibling who is experiencing major stress in their family. There can be further isolation if their family has difficulty in supporting them with extra-curricular activities, where many peer friendships are started.
- Listen to teens and assist them to identify feelings and express concerns
- Let them know you understand that being a sibling can bring challenges
- Share coping strategies to manage stress, e.g., physical activity, journaling, music, mindfulness (some work better than others for each individual)
- Let them know it is ok to have their own goals and interests and encourage participation. Remember too that all young people go through phases. Even the most caring of siblings may want to distance themselves from family for periods of time
- Encourage engagement with a school counsellor, mental health services or other therapists to talk through concerns, learn coping strategies and have support to engage with peers
- Ensure a suitable study space at home or if this is not possible, work out ways they might have dedicated quiet time at school, the library or extended family/friends’ house
- If the sibling has concerns about genetic issues, assist them to talk with a genetic counsellor
- Encourage connection with other siblings. Siblings Australia is exploring a number of options for peer support for teen sibs. Siblings can register interest for our TeenSib programs/supports via this page Disability Support For Teen Siblings of People with Disability | Siblings Australia