Talking to young siblings about disability

It’s a question we’re asked frequently by the parents of young children: “How do I talk to my sibling child about their brother or sister’s disability?” As with most things that parenting involves, there’s no one “right” way to tackle the topic. Every child and every family is different, and the approach you take will ultimately depend on what feels right for you and yours.

That said, we have found that there are a few things parents may find helpful when tackling a conversation that will likely span their family’s lifetime. Read on and find out what they are.

It’s never too early to start the conversation

Parents may worry that their sibling child is too young to discuss something as “serious” as their brother or sister’s disability, but it’s important not to be misled by our adult point of view. From the perspective of a very young child, disability is simply part of life.

The information you provide your sibling child can be expanded as  they get older. Books can be a great tool to help children understand both their brother or sister’s disability, and their own experience of it – you can find a list of some of our favourites here.

By starting the conversation as early as possible, and answering your sibling child’s questions as they arise, you avoid any need for a “big reveal” down the line.

Keep it simple!

“Cerebral palsy” might not mean much to a four-year-old, but more helpful is “Jamie needs some help to walk because his legs don’t work the same way yours do”.

Keep information simple and factual and use language that your sibling child understands. Many families find that conversations around disability work best if they’re simply part of everyday life. Talking about the support their brother or sister requires with eating will likely feel most natural – and therefore relaxed and comfortable – to both yourself and your sibling child at mealtime, for instance. This approach can also lessen resentment – some children feel it is unfair when a child repeatedly has more attention or gets away with things because of ‘their disability’.

You may find that many of the conversations you have with your sibling child about their brother or sister’s disability are in response to questions they have. It’s important to make sure your sibling child knows that their questions are welcome. That doesn’t mean you need to have answers ready for them right away – we all know that kids can ask questions we’d never have dreamt up ourselves! “What a great question! I’m going to need some time to think about that one before I come back to you with an answer” is a perfectly acceptable response.

We all need help with something

In many ways, the lens of childhood is a wonderful equaliser. Before young children understand disability, they will simply see difference – something that exists between all the people they know. Seeing their world, and the people in it, through their eyes can help parents to communicate with their sibling children about disability.

One way of talking to your sibling child about their brother or sister’s disability is to explore other members of the family and their strengths and challenges alongside the child with disability. For example, “Dad is great at cooking, but he needs help with fixing the car, or “You are great at drawing, but you need help tying your shoes”.

To label or not to label?

As mentioned above, diagnostic labels won’t necessarily be helpful to a very young child in understanding their sibling’s disability. That said, it’s almost certain that they will hear the label associated with their sibling’s diagnosis at some point in their lives – even if it’s avoided at home.

It’s important to avoid creating feelings of shame or negativity around diagnostic labels, or words that might be used in a clinical or medical setting. If a sibling child never hears their family say that “Alex has autism”, and then hears the term used during a visit to the doctor or in the schoolyard, they may feel confused, that maybe it’s too bad to mention, or even that they’ve been deliberately left in the dark.

One last tip – it’s OK to make mistakes. In fact, you’ll almost certainly say things you’ll reflect on later and wish you worded differently. Don’t let anxiety about saying the “wrong” thing get in the way of helping your sibling child to explore what their brother or sister’s disability means for them, and for the rest of the family.   

As always, we’re here if you need support – you can reach us at info@siblingsaustralia.org.au, or via our contact page.