Adult Siblings: Childhood Experiences

How to Cope with Disability in Adult Siblings

Each sibling’s experience is unique. Whilst many siblings of people with disability/ chronic illness recall only positive aspects from their childhood, others have a more complex experience.

As children, it isn’t easy to understand and manage the differing feelings that can arise as a sibling, which, if left unaddressed, can lead to poor mental health and wellbeing and other personal challenges. Many factors affect how a child responds to the challenges of being a sibling – their personality, the nature of their brother or sister’s disability, parental well-being, or the level of support they can access (from the extended family unit, friends, or professionals). 

Many things then influence the meaning created from those experiences – how and what they were told about the disability, the messages from others, and what siblings are told or tell themselves. 

For example, many siblings learned that they needed to be the ‘good child’, to not rock the boat or add to their parents’ stress or grief. Some children feel they need to put their own needs behind those of others. Accessing support to adjust some of those perceptions can be a key factor in a child’s resilience building.

Many siblings don’t become fully aware of their own experiences, and the meanings they have created from those, until they reach adulthood. As Tara says, ‘As a professional in child health, I was drawn to siblings and I facilitated the development of several support programs. After about six months I picked up a book by a sibling and literally fell apart. It took this powerful story to allow me to recognise my own childhood and to understand my fears, my passion, and my grief. It was the start of a very powerful and pain-laden recovery’. (Siblings: Brothers and Sisters of Children with Disability (2015, revised edition)). Wakefield Press LINK Wakefield Press :: Body/Mind/Spirit :: Siblings

In adulthood, some siblings begin to recognise the impact being a sibling has had on their relationships. For example, some might find that it is difficult to express anger or any negativity. Others have realised that they allow others to take advantage of their tendency to put others’ needs first. Of course, some can gain strength through their experiences, and use that in positive ways, e.g., to advocate for people with disabilities. 

Self Reflection Exercise

It can be helpful to reflect on your own childhood experiences, and why you might react the way you do with parents, your brother or sister with disability, other siblings, extended family/friends or even work colleagues. A helpful exercise could be to review the following questions and take some time to write your thoughts.

  1. How and when did you find out about the disability of your brother or sister? What were you told? What did you tell yourself?
  2. Did you become a people pleaser?
  3. Did you learn to put the needs of others before your own? And does that now affect your relationships as an adult?
  4. Did you have people with whom you could share any feelings? Did you take on extra responsibility? How did you feel in response to others’ reactions?
  5. What were the effects of the disability on your parents’ relationship? On other family relationships? Were they supportive of each other? Did you have certain fears? How was school for you?

Some siblings keep difficult or confronting feelings deeply buried as it feels too hard to work through them, but, with support, exploring issues around grief, guilt or anger, can lead to healing in the longer term. Even if you feel positive about your sibling relationship there may still be lingering feelings that hinder your growth.

Some siblings feel that it is disloyal to address these issues, but it is about the situation and not so much about laying blame. Most siblings are very aware that parents were doing the very best they could in the situation, but it’s OK to recognise that your needs, as a child, may not have been met in the ways you needed. You may find that forgiveness is possible – for yourself or others, leading to greater self-acceptance.

Writing down your thoughts can help your understanding and mental well-being. Certainly, sharing your feelings and experiences with other siblings can be helpful – Siblings Australia have both an online and an in-person adult peer support group for siblings of people with disabilities, to share their experiences, but also reading sibling books written by and for siblings can help.

Adult Peer Support Group

Counselling might be helpful too – it allows you to explore these issues without worrying about causing any stress for those who are close to you. Mental health support can lead to real benefits for you.

And finally, develop a network of friends, family and professionals who can help you manage the challenges that might arise for you in adulthood. 

About Kate Strohm

After several careers as a hospital scientist, health educator, counsellor and print/radio journalist, Kate founded Siblings Australia in 1999. Since then she has developed a national and international reputation for her work with siblings, parents, and professionals. Her book Siblings: Brothers and Sisters of Children with Disability (Wakefield Press, 2002, revised edition 2015) has been published in Australia, the US and UK and translated into Korean. Her only sister lived with cerebral palsy.

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