Ways to Support Siblings
There are a number of ways parents can support siblings to grow up strong and secure. They can range from simple changes that you can incorporate into everyday life to more specialist supports. The information below gives practical suggestions on how you can implement these supports.
A sense of being special too
Help each child to feel special – try to spend one-on-one time and celebrate all family members’ achievements. Help your family to recognise each other’s strengths and weaknesses. As one child said, “Hey mum, Aaron has autism, I have asthma, what do you have?”
Most children will understand the extra attention given to a child with disability if they are helped to feel important too. Parents, professionals or extended family/friends can all show interest in a sibling and help them to feel special. Value their input, both their opinions and their practical contributions to family activities. Consider specialist supports that could help you spend one on one time with your sibling child. For some parents, it might be when your child with disability is engaged with their support worker.
Give children information about the disability/illness at their level of understanding, increasing the detail as they age or ask questions. Let them know it is okay to ask questions. Help them understand the needs of their brother or sister. Books and websites can help with this.
Remember there are lots of ways children can learn about the disability and how it impacts themselves and the family. Being open to talk about issues as they arise in everyday life can help prevent siblings developing unnecessary fears and worries about the disability. It will also help them explain the disability to others and advocate for their brother or sister, as well as themselves. If therapists or providers are involved, ask them for guidance in how to explain the disability to your sibling child.
Try to attend a parent workshop on sibling support by Siblings Australia or other agencies. Read books about sibling needs. See the list of suitable books on the Siblings Australia website.
Supporting the sibling relationship
Try to help siblings develop ways to have fun with their brother or sister with disability. Think about common interests they have and provide activities that they can engage in together. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate; it could be as simple as making and enjoying a hot chocolate together.
Don’t be discouraged when things don’t go according to plan. Remember that ups and downs are a normal part of sibling relationships. However, there may be times you need to seek support with strengthening the sibling relationship. There will be professionals e.g. a psychologist, who may be able to help.
To counter isolation, siblings need to develop some independence and social connection through spending time with peers doing a range of activities. Help your children to take part in community activities so they can interact with other children.
Try to spend time with extended family or friends. A strong social network, including adults and children, gives siblings a sense of value. It also provides people to whom they can turn for support. Family and friends might also be able to help in other ways such as transporting your child to community activities if this is difficult for you.
Remember, opportunities for independence are important. And this extends to the home environment where siblings need their own space and privacy.
Connect with other siblings
Try to encourage your children to have contact with other siblings – either informally through family friends or agencies that support you or through a formal sibling support program. Siblings can share experiences with other siblings and learn they are not alone. Just as parents gain support from other parents, siblings also gain from this type of interaction.
There are also online resources for siblings. See the Siblings Australia website.
Skills to deal with difficult situations
Children cope better if they have the skills to deal with situations that arise (eg teasing or other reactions from peers or the community). Sibling groups can help children feel stronger and more able to influence what happens around them. Other resources, like books (Tough Boris, by Mem Fox) and the internet (KidsHelpline), can also help.
Many siblings experience big feelings that can be confusing and hard to manage.
Listen to your children and try to ‘walk in their shoes’. Let them know you understand that it can be difficult for them sometimes.
Opportunities to express feelings
Help siblings express their feelings – both good and not so good. Being open about feelings helps children to cope. They can learn that it is ok to have a mix of feelings, and that all brothers and sisters have mixed feelings from time to time. They can learn that it is okay to feel angry, sad, fearful, embarrassed, and that these feelings do not mean they do not love and care for their brother or sister. Keep in mind that ALL siblings love and loathe each other at different times. Set an example by showing it is okay to share difficult feelings. Sometimes drawing or writing a journal can also help them to express their feelings. Try not to say things like “you should feel lucky that you don’t have a disability”.
If difficult behaviours arise as a result of upset feelings, it is important for children to know that not all behaviours are okay. In these situations, children need help to cope with feelings in ways that do not harm themselves or others. And seek support from a psychologist or behaviour support professional as needed.
Be mindful of the signs of stress that might arise( Read more)
Let your children know that you appreciate their help but try to not overload them with responsibility. Help them to develop their own independence and interests.
Assisting in the care of a child with disability and being appreciated can add to a sibling’s sense of competence and self-worth. They can feel especially important if they contribute in meaningful ways, e.g., teaching skills, helping to play; rather than just caregiving. However, it needs to be kept in balance.
Siblings benefit from being involved and having input into discussions about family routines, adaptations, and the role each family member plays in creating a strong, caring family. This can add to a sibling’s sense of value as contributing members of the family. Of course, not all siblings will want to be involved but they should be given the opportunity to and know that their opinion counts.
If you think your children might worry about the future, encourage them to talk through their concerns. They might benefit from professional support with these or other worries. Having conversations with the therapists and health professionals you are already involved with can be useful. For further support, contact Siblings Australia.
For other supports go to Find Support
For parents of adult siblings you can find specific information on how to support your child in the Adult Siblings section. Parents of younger siblings might also find this section useful for future consideration.