The Sibling Experience

The sibling relationship is potentially the longest of any we have. Each sibling relationship is unique, complex, and can change over time, particularly when one sibling has a disability.

We hear siblings reflect on their strong, two-way and loving relationship with their brother or sister with a disability and qualities they have developed such as maturity, compassion and resilience.

I love my brother like I love no other, a protective and concerned love.

But we also hear about the challenges and, from an early age, siblings can experience confusion, feelings of isolation, resentment, grief and/or guilt which may contribute to difficulties with overall wellbeing and various relationships throughout their life. However, through seeking support, many talk about moving forward with more self-acceptance and a stronger relationship with their brother or sister. 

Growing up, I felt totally alone

Adult siblings have identified a range of possible concerns, including:

  • unresolved feelings arising from childhood, e.g. isolation, anger, grief, guilt
  • low self-esteem or feeling unworthy of support, that their needs aren’t important enough compared to their brother or sister with disability.
    ” I was told I was lucky, what did I have to worry about when I said I felt depressed and didn’t want to go to school?”
  • pressure to over-achieve
  • sadness their brother or sister faces so many challenges or may not achieve lifespan milestones, such as being employed, going out with friends, finding a partner; grief for parents and what they experience; grief about not having a sibling relationship like others
    “Grief is an ongoing process and it is so very important we accept our grief and acknowledge our sadness. “
  • feelings of disloyalty if they talk openly about any challenges or difficulties
  • wanting to explore sibling issues but being afraid of stirring up emotion for themselves and other family members
  • confusion or lack of understanding of the disability service system
  • worry over what will happen when parents can no longer provide care for a brother or sister with a disability
  • concern over finding a life partner who will understand and be willing to share in possible future responsibilities
  • concerns about having children themselves, e.g. the risk of genetic inheritance of their brother or sister’s disability
  • balancing responsibilities between a brother or sister and their own family and employment 
  • in some cases feeling that they had little choice in the role they play
  • exhaustion from giving support to a brother or sister with a disability or to ageing parent carers, sometimes at the expense of their own life goals
  • high expectations from themselves or others that they will take over from parents
  • Understanding you are not alone; there are many siblings in a similar situation
  • Reading about other sibling experiences.
  • Making contact with other siblings, either face to face or via the internet. The Siblings Australia website hosts online forums for both adult and teen siblings.
  • Writing about your experiences – sometimes this helps to make sense of your different feelings.
  • Understanding your experience is impacted by many things and will not be exactly the same as another sibling’s experience. The type and severity of your brother’s or sister’s disability, your family’s coping abilities and strategies and your own personality and resilience will all play a part.
  • If you provide support to your brother or sister with a disability they you may be eligible for services provided through the Carer Gateway on 1800 422 737
  • Seeking counselling to explore how your childhood experiences may still impact your life. Counselling may help you to develop strategies to manage difficult feelings and to care for yourself. Start by talking with your General Practitioner (GP) who can refer you to an appropriate counsellor. Through Medicare you can get a rebate on up to 6 counselling sessions per year if you have a Mental Health Care Plan from your GP. If your situation is complex you can apply through your GP for more sessions. Or read this fact sheet: Better access to mental health care: fact sheet for patients

If you feel the GP or counsellor does not fully understand siblings’ experiences, and if you feel comfortable doing so, you could provide them with a relevant book or refer them to the Siblings Australia website.

Self Reflective questions for adult siblings 

In order to gain an understanding about your reactions and feelings you might like to think about the following aspects of your childhood. They might act as cues for you to write about your experiences, and they might help you to become more aware of what you are feeling, and why.

  • How did you find out about your brother and sister’s disability?
  • What were the effects of the disability on your family relationships?
  • What are your feelings about the disability, your brother or sister and yourself: the good things and the not-so-good things?
  • How do you feel if you think or write about your difficult reactions/feelings?
  • How do you feel about the responsibilities assigned to you?
  • Did you try to be the ‘good’ child or try in other ways to be perfect/successful?
  • If you couldn’t talk of feelings in your family, were there others with whom you could talk?
  • Has guilt played a part in your life?
  • Were you embarrassed?
  • Have you been included in plans made for your sibling, such as respite, accommodation, guardianship?
  • Do you have anxieties about the future and your responsibilities to your brother or sister?
  • How do you explain your brother or sister to others?
  • Do you know other siblings of people with disability?
  • What are your feelings about having your own family?

You may want to use the answers to these questions as discussion points when seeking assistance from a professional. 

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