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 of the siblings has a disability. Siblings can develop a strong, two-way and loving relationship with their brother or sister with a disability. Some say they have developed a range of qualities, such as high levels of maturity, compassion and resilience, and often say “my brother/sister made me who I am”. Many siblings go on to provide significant support over a lifetime.
There can be stresses too, and because the sibling journey usually starts in childhood, when emotional maturity or skills to deal with any stresses might be underdeveloped, some siblings experience confusion and feel isolated. As a result, they may have unresolved or conflicting feelings, such as resentment, grief and/or guilt carrying over into their teen years and continuing into adulthood.
These feelings may contribute to difficulties within their family and/or with their brother or sister, or with other relationships they form in adulthood. Some siblings feel they don’t deserve support themselves; their needs are not as important. However, through seeking support, and greater understanding, many siblings can move forward with more self-respect and acceptance. In some cases, through this process, their relationship with a brother or sister has also become stronger.
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 that their own needs are not important.
- 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.
- 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.
What might help?
- 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.
- 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.
If you provide support to your brother or sister with a disability then you may be eligible to access the Carer Advisory & Counselling Service on 1800 242 636, or Commonwealth Respite & Carelink Centre on 1800 052 222. For respite, eligibility criteria may apply.
- Siblings: Brothers and Sisters of Children with Disability (Kate Strohm), Wakefield Press, Adelaide, revised edition 2014
- Special Siblings: Growing up with Someone with a Disability (Mary McHugh), Paul H Brookes Publishing, Baltimore, revised edition 2003
- What About Me? Growing Up with a Developmentally Delayed Sibling (B Siegel & S Silverstein), Perseus, Cambridge MA, 1994
- My Sister’s Keeper: Learning to Cope with a Sibling’s Mental Illness (M Moorman), WW Norton, New York, 1992