Challenges for Siblings
Many siblings can reflect positively about their experiences growing up, saying they developed a range of skills and attributes, as well as a strong bond with their brother or sister with disability.
But siblings can also experience difficulties. There can be confusion over the feelings that arise. On the one hand they may feel love and protection towards their brother or sister, but they can also feel resentment, fear, guilt, embarrassment and sorrow about what is happening around them. If children are not able to express their emotions and gain support, they can become at risk for a range of emotional, mental and physical health problems into adulthood.
Below are some of the challenges for siblings of children with disability. Not all siblings will experience all of these and 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 or might ‘catch it’. 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 if the disability involves communication difficulties or challenging behaviours.
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.
Siblings can experience several ‘big’ emotions which are difficult to understand and process at a young age. If left, unexpressed, they can lead to further impacts on health and wellbeing. For example:
- Anger and resentment when a brother or sister with disability is treated differently or allowed to behave in ways that they are not. Or when family activities are inevitably disrupted from time to time, and when others are insensitive towards them or their brother or sister.
- Embarrassment about how others perceive their brother or sister’s appearance or behaviour, especially in public and when others tease or stare.
- Fear 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.
- Feelings of 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 activities. This can hinder them raising their own difficulties, especially when they see their parents stressed. They can feel badly about typical sibling conflicts, and a sense of shame about difficult feelings.
- Feelings of sorrow for what a brother or sister deals with and 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 sadness about what their parents are experiencing.
- Siblings may put themselves under pressure to be perfect., 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.
Siblings can gain a strong sense of competence and self-esteem if they help their brother or sister. Those contributions need to be recognised and valued. However, at times, the responsibility can become too much, and siblings might feel they do not 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?
Some children won’t express their feelings openly, but instead the difficult feelings may show up in their behaviour. They may be experiencing stresses from several sources, not only through being a sibling. Be mindful of the following signs of stress that might show up.
Withdrawal in order to protect themselves physically and/or emotionally. Younger children might regress, e.g., become more ‘clingy’.
‘Acting up’ behaviour might be a way to cope with feelings. This might also indicate a need for attention and connection.
Being the ‘good child’, a people pleaser might indicate siblings are trying to make things better for parents who they see as being stressed. Some children start to deny or ignore their own needs. They can become used to always putting the needs of others before themselves, and not feeling good enough.
Anxiety, depression can develop 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. Some are at risk of developing a general feeling of hopelessness.
Stomach aches, headaches, sleep problems can all indicate stress. 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 self-harm or eating disorders in adolescence.
School, social difficulties might indicate that they are experiencing isolation, teasing or a sense that ‘no‐one understands’.