Disabled Child

The importance of a sibling relationship (Part 1)

My brother has been the most influential person in my life and continues to be each day (sibling, Josie, about brother with disability).

This blog comes in two parts. First, it examines the things that might affect sibling relationships, especially in childhood and why sibling relationships are important both for a sibling and for a child/adult with disability. 

Part 2 will give you practical ways to help foster a strong, healthy relationship between your child with disability and their siblings.

Family is a key connection for most people across their lifetime. It is one of the main influences on a child’s skill and confidence development, and their connection to community. The relationships that all siblings share can be complex and can change as they move through different life stages. Siblings play a crucial part in each other’s emotional development, allowing for love and companionship, learning of social skills, and influencing identity development. 

When one sibling has a disability, the relationship can be even more complex, and even more important for both siblings. 

Why it’s important to foster sibling relationships early

For a child with disability, these early family relationships can provide a strong scaffolding for future development. At an early age young siblings might be the first peer relationship for the child with disability. They might provide social companionship, be motivators and assist in the child with disability learning social skills. Having a sibling relationship can add much to both children’s development. The Autism CRC Research Report noted that siblings can be significant ‘agents’ in the development of children on the autism spectrum.

Siblings or Young Carer

If the sibling relationship can be nurtured from early on, it is likely to continue into adulthood and be the longest of any for the person with disability. If the relationship remains close, there can be huge benefits for both the sibling and the person with disability. Siblings might provide practical support but, ultimately, it is the relationship itself, regardless of other roles a sibling might play, that is crucial to the lifelong mental health, wellbeing, social inclusion, and safety of a person with disability. 

So, it’s important to think about why some siblings remain closely involved in the life of their brother or sister, and others do not? What strengthens these sibling relationships, especially when one sibling has an intellectual disability, and what barriers hinder the development of these relationships? 

It is childhood experiences that set the scene for the nature of sibling relationships in adulthood. The mapping project (Siblings Australia Inc., 2018) showed that siblings often grow up in a situation of considerable family stress, at a time when they can lack the understanding and emotional maturity to cope. It is well known that early stress can have a long-term impact on a child’s development (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2005/2014).  

Family Supporting A Disabled Child

Many adult siblings have indicated that, as children, they felt isolated, missed out on attention from and time spent with parents, carried excessive responsibility, worried about the future, felt sadness, guilt, resentment, or embarrassment, and had had to handle difficult responses from others (including being bullied or ostracised). Additionally, many parents identified that having a sibling with a disability had sometimes prevented their children from being able to take part in community activities.

Often, these relationships become strained down because a young sibling is confused or stressed by what is happening around them, or why their brother or sister behaves the way they do. They might develop resentment about the child with disability seeming to be more important, or that family activities revolve around the child with disability, or that things just don’t seem fair. And if we can put ourselves in the shoes of a young child, they probably aren’t. We can’t change that, but we can help a child manage those challenges.

Look out for Part 2, where we share practical ideas on how to nurture and strengthen the relationship between your children.

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.

Skip to content