Below are some of the challenges for siblings of children with disability. We understand that not all siblings will experience all of these and that some might emerge at different life stages.
Feeling left out
A child with disability may require intensive support, attention and energy from parents to ensure they get the necessary care. As a result, young siblings can feel left out or even neglected. With limited opportunity to spend one-on-one time with parents, they often perceive the needs of a brother or sister as being more important, which can impact on their own self‐worth.
Lack of understanding
Without information, siblings might form misunderstandings about the disability and fears that they themselves have caused it. Some children might believe that they may also develop a disability. They may also struggle to explain the disability to others.
Relationship difficulties with brother or sister
Siblings may have difficulty interacting and playing with their brother or sister. They might also feel disappointment, frustration, fear, guilt and sorrow for what their brother or sister is going through and grieve the fact that their sibling relationship is different to others.
Siblings can sometimes feel different and marginalised from those around them. These feelings can stem from:
- Feeling different to their friends
- Difficulties with having friends over
- Friends not understanding what they are going through
- Missing out on opportunities to take part in community activities
- Other people’s insensitivity and how they react to the child with disability and/or the sibling e.g. staring, teasing and bullying
Social isolation can make it more difficult for siblings to seek help.
Anger and resentment
This can build up when a sibling’s brother or sister is treated differently or is allowed to behave in ways that they are not. Or when family activities are inevitably disrupted from time to time. There can also be anger at the insensitive and unfair reactions of others towards the disability.
Children can feel judged by others if anyone in their family has any difference. At times there can be a strong sense of embarrassment in how other’s perceive their brother or sister’s appearance or behaviour, especially in public and when others tease or stare.
Some siblings may have fears about developing a disability themselves. If their brother or sister has difficult behaviours, they may fear physical harm to themselves or others in their family.
Siblings may feel guilt because they do not have a disability themselves (‘survivor guilt’). There can be guilt about their own successes when they see a brother or sister struggling with basic life skills. This can hinder them raising their own difficulties, especially when they see their parents stressed. They can feel bad about typical sibling conflicts, and a sense of shame if they have negative feelings towards their brother or sister.
As well as feelings of sorrow for what a brother or sister deals with, there can be feelings of loss at not having a typical sibling relationship that they see most others having. As children, it can be difficult to understand those feelings or know how to deal with them. They may also feel an intense sense of sympathy and helplessness in what their parents are experiencing.
Pressure to be perfect
Siblings may feel they have to be perfect and put themselves under pressure to be the good child This might be to gain attention or to not ‘make waves’ when they see that parents are already going through a lot. They may also feel the need to achieve in academics or sport to make up for the limitations in their brother or sister’s abilities.
Some children won’t express their feelings openly, but instead they may show up in their behaviour. They may be experiencing stresses from a number of sources, not only through being a sibling. Be mindful of the following signs of stress that might show up.
Children might withdraw in order to protect themselves physically and/or emotionally. Sometimes it can be a useful strategy but when continued over time is not the best way to manage. Younger children might regress, e.g., need to wear nappies again or be more ‘clingy’.
‘Acting up’ behaviour
Children might adopt disruptive or aggressive behaviours in an effort to cope with their feelings. This might also indicate a need for attention and connection.
Being the ‘good child’, a people pleaser
Siblings may feel that they want to help make things better for parents who they see as being stressed, and so try to be the ‘good child’. Additionally, while siblings can gain much from helping to care for a brother or sister with disability or illness, some children throw themselves into caregiving, denying or ignoring their own needs. They can become used to always putting the needs of others before themselves. This can be particularly unhealthy if the child has also adopted the role of ‘people pleaser’.
Siblings can feel a pressure to be perfect, in order to make up for certain limitations of their brother or sister. They can develop an exaggerated fear of failure, of letting down their parents. Their self worth can become totally dependent on their successes, which can increase the risk of depression in future years when they don’t feel good enough.
Anxiety, depression, low self‐worth
Some children will develop longer‐term anxiety in response to the various stresses, fear or embarrassment. Siblings may learn very early that things can go wrong in life. They might see a brother or sister suffer and not feel hopeful things will improve. In terms of family activities they may feel powerless to change what happens. Young siblings might say things like, “my parents never come to see me play basketball”, “all they care about is my sister”, “I can’t do anything”. Some are at risk of developing a general feeling of hopelessness.
Stomach aches, headaches, sleep problems
Anxiety and depression can sometimes show up as physical complaints. Of course not all physical complaints are the result of stress but they are signs to consider when thinking about the needs of siblings. Some siblings have developed eating disorders in adolescence.
School, social difficulties
If children start to struggle with school or friendships it might mean that they are experiencing isolation, teasing or a sense that ‘no‐one understands’.
Siblings can gain a strong sense of competence and self-esteem if they help out with their brother or sister. However, at times siblings can feel they don’t have a choice in what roles they play. If the balance is not right, they can miss out on social opportunities with their peers as well as life opportunities. This can result in conflicting emotions ranging from guilt over the need to care for their brother or sister, to resentment over missing out on social and recreational opportunities. One of the main functions of adolescence is to develop a sense of identity separate from our families. This process can sometimes be more complex for siblings, as they try to balance their own needs with those of their family. For some, creating independence can be difficult.
As siblings become older the sense of responsibility can grow. They might start to worry about the future and what their role might be in supporting a brother or sister.
What will happen when parents are no longer able to provide care? What role should the sibling play? Will they be able to find a partner in life who will take on the responsibility of someone with disability? What about having children themselves? If they do have their own family, how can a sibling balance that responsibility alongside that for their brother or sister with disability?
You can find out more on the adult sibling’s ‘Planning for the Future’ page .