As mentioned in Part 1, if the 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. As siblings age, 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. In this blog, you’ll learn practical ways to help foster a strong, healthy relationship between your child with a disability and their siblings.
What services or supports, or both, in childhood could contribute to strengthening those relationships over the longer term? What can parents and providers do to meet the needs of siblings and foster stronger sibling relationships?
Explain the Disability
Provide information about how disability impacts their brother or sister, at their level of understanding. Let them know why a brother/sister might not respond to them or might be aggressive, that this does not mean he/she doesn’t love them. Explain why a child might have a meltdown; that their brain works differently and that sometimes they cannot control how they react. If you cannot explain the disability, books can be helpful, or you could engage one of the therapists who works with your family to have this conversation. Understanding the disability better will assist siblings to connect more readily with their brother/sister with disability.
How to Show Understanding
At the same time as explaining the disability, also recognise the impact on the sibling. For example, ‘I understand you are disappointed we had to cancel the picnic again, I wish we didn’t have to; is there something we can do to try to make up for your disappointment?
One sibling talks about how her sister with disability used to hit her and the sibling would hit back. The mother would say, ‘don’t do that, SHE can’t help it’, which led to resentment as it seemed that her mother didn’t care. It would have helped the relationship between the sisters, if the mother could have said, ‘I am sorry she hits you, I wish she didn’t, but that is her only way to manage her feelings’. It would have helped too if mother and sibling had been able to discuss how the little sister might respond in more appropriate ways. These sorts of responses lead to less resentment in a young child.
Adult siblings talk about how they wished parents (and others) had been able to recognise that it could be difficult for siblings too, listen and show understanding.
Let Them be Siblings (embrace the discomfort)
One sibling believes that the main reason she has a strong relationship with her brother is that she was allowed to ‘rough and tumble’ with him, despite his disability. It can be difficult for a parent when a child is vulnerable but being able to interact as other siblings might, can really assist in that relationship. All brothers and sisters love and hate each other from time to time. Also, siblings might move away from the family to some extent, to develop some independence. They are likely to return to the fold if allowed to create some distance for a while. Travel, study away from home, moving into their own accommodation, like other young adults, can all help them to develop identity and independence and can help them feel ready to contribute again.
Let siblings know that you value their contributions; at the same time, try not to overload them with responsibility. Contributing to the family and, in particular, their brother/sister with disability, can be beneficial for children – it gives them skills to take into adulthood and it can strengthen the relationship between the siblings. Again, though, children can feel resentment if the responsibility becomes too great and they can’t meet their own needs for social connection with friends, or other activities.
Therapists who work with your child with disability could also involve the sibling(s) either with the child with disability or separately. They might be able to find activities that both children can enjoy together and assist a sibling to manage the impact of challenging behaviours in their brother/sister. The aim is to strengthen the bond between siblings, to nurture the relationship from a young age.
Connect Siblings to Other Siblings
Peer support for young siblings (in fact, at any age) allows children to feel less alone, develop skills to manage difficult situations; and connect with other children who ‘get it’. These groups can help siblings interact more positively with their brother/sister with disability. Suggest to providers that they might run SibWorks, a peer support program for 8-12-year-old siblings.
One of the main themes of the NDIS is ‘relationships’, however, the emphasis is often on relationships outside the family. There is a lack of understanding that many of those outside relationships are made possible or enhanced by setting up strong relationships first in the family. As mentioned earlier it is these family relationships that set up the scaffolding for future development of a child, then an adult, with disability. Discuss this with the people involved in developing the child’s NDIS Plan and include goals related to the sibling relationship in that Plan. For example, ‘I would like to improve my relationship with siblings’, or ‘I would like my siblings to understand my disability better’.
Would you like a full range of tools and resources to help enrich your child’s life? Take our SibWise – Parents Supporting Siblings course (only 3 hours to complete). Our website also has further resources.