Why Support Siblings?
There is growing evidence that preventative approaches which focus on risk and protective factors, especially in the early years, can lead to long term improvements in health and wellbeing. The Australian government’s National Preventive Health Strategy 2021-30 has a vision to ‘improve the health of all Australians at all stages of life, through early intervention, better information, targeting risk factors and addressing the broader causes of poor health and wellbeing.’ The Strategy ‘recognises the value of a life course approach, which emphasises the significance of prevention in the early years.’
In Edwards, B., Higgins, D. J., Gray, M., Zmijewski, N., & Kingston, M. (2008). The nature and impact of caring for family members with a disability in Australia (Research Report No. 16). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies, found that parent carers had higher rates of depression than the wider population (and showed the same for the other children (siblings) in the family). Other international studies have confirmed the possible impacts on the longer-term mental health of parents and siblings.
A previous Position Statement from the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists states, ‘There is reasonable consensus that siblings of children with chronic conditions are at risk for behavioural, mental and physical health problems. If left unaddressed, the challenges which siblings face can increase their risk of developing longer term mental health problems, at considerable cost to them, governments, and the community.’
Parent carers sometimes worry as much about their sibling child as they do about their child with disability. Support for siblings is important in terms of supporting parents to feel more confident.
Also, a recent article in the journal, Pediatrics (2013; 132: e476–e483Pa), reported significant impact on siblings and concluded that ‘Health care professionals need to consider a family‐based health care approach for families raising children with disability.’
It is important that siblings are recognised and supported because:
- They can face their own challenges as a result of the disability/illness of their brother or sister
- They will likely have the longest relationship of any with the person with disability/illness and can contribute much to the health and well-being of their brother or sister over a lifetime.
- Support for siblings contributes to the health and wellbeing of the whole family
Support for siblings helps them to feel less isolated and more able to manage any challenges. They will feel more important in the family, more confident to seek out assistance from trusted people in their lives. They will be less likely to develop their own health problems down the track and be more able to pursue their own life opportunities.
Parents can understandably be overwhelmed at times by the magnitude of their responsibilities, especially when a child has disability. Support for siblings has the benefit of strengthening relationships between family members. Parents report that support for siblings has helped them to communicate more effectively together – parents are more aware of what all their children need. This can help parents feel more confident in their parenting role and contribute to the health and wellbeing of the whole family.
For the person with disability
Siblings are likely to have the longest relationship of any with the person with disability. If we can nurture that relationship from early on, then it is likely that the sibling relationship will be more enduring and mutually sustaining. Many parents report that siblings interact more with their brother or sister after they attend a sibling support program. In the longer term, a sibling can play an important role in the social and emotional health and wellbeing of the person with disability.
For the community
Siblings may learn a lot of skills through their childhood experiences and, if supported, are likely to contribute to the community in very useful ways. Siblings are also less likely to develop longer term health concerns such as depression or anxiety, which cost the community through medical and social services. Also, with support, they are more likely to want to stay involved in the life of their brother or sister with disability, ensuring greater social inclusion and safety for people with disability. This can lead to greater independence of people with disability and less dependence on the health and disability industries.