Building Resilience in Kids with Special Siblings

Resilience Building in Sibs of Kids with Disabilities – by Kate Strohm

Resilience Building for Children

Why is resilience important and how do we develop it in children?
All of us experience adversity and we cannot entirely protect children from experiencing challenging times, but we can help them manage, learn and grow from them. Through focusing on the strengths in an individual child and building on those within their environment, we can help to build their resilience and help them to cope with difficulties in a positive way.

Siblings of children with disabilities can face several challenges. And there are several factors that influence the adjustment of siblings to those difficulties – their personality, the nature of their brother or sister’s disability, their age, birth order and number of children in the family will all play a part in their ability to adjust.

With respect to personality, some children are more affected by stress and what is happening around them, while others can let it wash over them more easily. Some types of disability have greater impact than others. Those with communication impacts or behavioural issues can hinder the development of close relationships.

Birth order can influence sibling reactions too. Children who are older than the child with disability may have a very different experience to those who are younger, even within the same family. An older child will have started to develop their own identity before the child with disability arrived and will likely feel more comfortable pursuing their own interests. They might also have more nurturing feelings towards a younger child. On the other hand, they may miss the close attention of parents which they had previously. Younger siblings will come into a family at varying stages of the disability diagnosis. Some time ago I worked with a family that included a boy with a genetic condition that had several impacts including intellectual disability. As they grew older, his older sister accepted him well, as did all her friends. They regularly included him in shared activities. However, his younger sister distanced herself completely. It is important to remember that these two girls had a very different experience of the disability and its impacts and the different stages of the disability. The family was experiencing major stress during the period of the younger daughter’s early years, and this inevitably had an impact on her. However, the family took some time to understand this and to shift from a ‘good sib, bad sib’ position to one that was able to support her and, ultimately, the sibling relationship.

Ultimately, the adjustment of siblings, and their development of resilience, depends primarily on the reactions of people around them. A child is more likely to feel secure if they have someone who listens to and validates them, who helps them develop trust in their own reactions and ability to cope.

For example, a sibling might say to a parent, ‘It’s not fair that I have to do the dishes when Jamie doesn’t have to!’ If a parent says something like, ‘well you should feel lucky that you don’t have a disability’, it can undermine the child’s perception. In fact, to a young child it does seem unfair. If a parent can say, ‘yes, I understand, it must feel unfair, but you are more able to do the task and so your contribution is a big help’. This confirms a child’s feeling and develops confidence in their reactions and abilities.

Resilience Building in Sibs of Kids with Disabilities

If a child says they are embarrassed when their brother or sister comes into their school playground, it is very easy for a parent or other adult to say, ‘oh, don’t worry about the other kids!’ However, that doesn’t build their confidence or sense of control over what is happening around them. Instead, maybe write a little book, with pictures, about the child with a disability; how the disability impacts them but also their strengths, the ‘good things’, about the child. For example, showing that his legs don’t work in the same way, but he has a great smile and loves watching basketball. Not only does this help the sibling understand but, also, is a resource that they can share with classmates, so they too understand better. Maybe the school can have a disability awareness session whereby children can understand that differences are okay, they are a part of life. Siblings Australia offers an online e-learning module, SibWise, for teachers and other professionals to help support better outcomes for siblings Or parents can role-play with the sibling ways that he might respond to other children if they say anything hurtful to the sibling or their brother or sister.

Resilience Building Through Support and Resources

Peer support is also an excellent way to help build resilience in young children. Sibling Australia’s SibWorks program is facilitated by professionals and delivered in a group setting for siblings aged from 8 to 12 years. Children who have undertaken SibWorks:

  • understand more about disability and functional challenge
  • feel less alone
  • know new ways to deal with tricky feelings
  • have practiced coping skills they can use in their lives
  • feel more positive about themselves as siblings
Resilience Building in Sibs of Kids with Disabilities

Also, it is likely that siblings will better understand and accept their brother or sister with disability. This can add to the strength of the relationship. 

Again, developing greater resilience in a child, when they face challenges, is about helping them know that they have support people around them, and that those people (parents, extended family, professionals) will assist the child to develop skills to help manage the difficulties.

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