Build a positive sibling relationship within a special needs family

For most individuals, the sibling relationship is the longest-lasting relationship in their lives and cannot be terminated. Siblings exert a powerful influence on shaping each other’s identity. They take on many roles, including playmate, teacher, confidante, peer, mentor, companion, supporter, therapist, protector and friend. The sibling world is a testing ground for a range of raw emotions from jealousy and betrayal to loyalty and respect. Feelings of solidarity, rivalry, competition and coalition have a powerful influence on personality development, relationships and adult roles. Because the nature of the sibling relationship is one of intensity, intimacy and long duration, the impact of a disability on the sibling relationship is of great significance.

Being the sibling of a child with disabilities evokes many different emotions–from pride, happiness and enjoyment–to resentment, jealousy and irritation. At times, the relationship is just plain confusing. There is no way to know how a sibling will react to his or her circumstances. Consequently, it is important for parents to understand how to build positive sibling relations and manage potential problems.


Do

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  • encourage open and honest communication
  • participate in a group for siblings of special needs children
  • lookout for the warning signs of depression and anxiety
  • model positive ways to interact with your child with disabilities
  • balance all household chores
Don't

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  • put off future planning
  • allow the sibling to act as a parent
  • forget to give special attention to siblings
  • put restrictions on family activities
  • ignore the possibility of teasing or bullying

Lucie P. Lawrence, PhD‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do encourage open and honest communication

Help your children to be open about how they feel. Make it clear that it is acceptable to be angry at times; after all, strong feelings are part of any close relationship. Be honest and forthcoming. Share some of your own mixed feelings and concerns. For example, holding a weekly family meeting allows all individuals to discuss their concerns in a positive and nonjudgmental atmosphere. Each member should be encouraged to share everything they are feeling—negative and positive. Discuss ways to cope with stressful events, such as peers, public reaction, and responsibilities at home.

Do participate in a group for siblings of special needs children

Participation in a group for siblings allows children to meet others who are in the same boat, and provides children with the chance to discuss feelings that may be difficult to express to the family.There are many national and local organizations dedicated to the life-long concerns of brothers and sisters of people who have special health, or developmental or mental health concerns. These organizations train local service providers on how to create community-based peer support programs for young siblings, and in addition host workshops, listservs, and websites, and create handouts for young and adult siblings, which helps parents’ and providers’ awareness of siblings’ lifelong concerns.

Do lookout for the warning signs of depression and anxiety

Some siblings experience anxiety, guilt, confusion, isolation from peers and excessive worry. If your child displays any of the below symptoms for 2 weeks or more, consult the child’s pediatrician or a local mental health professional.

The warning signs for depression include: change in child’s sleeping or eating habits, a sense of helplessness or hopelessness, continuous irritability, mentions hurting self or being dead, difficulty making decisions or concentrating, lack of pleasure in activities, social withdrawal or low self-esteem.

The warning signs for anxiety include: excessive worry, increased energy level without a purpose, tearful at slightest frustration, has difficulty separating from parents, sleeping problems or change in sleeping or eating habits, school phobia, worry about health or well-being of family members, constant stomachaches and headaches, or perfectionism.

Do model positive ways to interact with your child with disabilities

Promote all of the positive aspects that having a sibling with special needs can have on the life of the typically developing child, and continuously reinforce these ideas. Additionally, offer age-appropriate information about disability to the typically developing sibling. There are many different types of literature, whether it is pamphlets from your therapist or pediatrician, or full length books that can help you and your child learn ways to interact with your special needs child.

Do balance all household chores

When a sibling with disabilities is incapable of helping around the house, the bulk of the chores tend to fall upon the typically developing child. This can create a great deal of anger and resentment. Balance the tasks each child is given and be sure that the child with disabilities is also given some type of chore.


Lucie P. Lawrence, PhD‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not put off future planning

Parents need to plan for the future and include the sibling when age appropriate. This lessens the pressure on the siblings and also may put into place services or people who will help the sibling make decisions. These include estate planning, circles of support, alternative living arrangements and housing subsidies.

Do not allow the sibling to act as a parent

Some siblings will compensate for the disability by becoming a substitute parent. While a certain amount of nurturing and advocacy on behalf of a brother or sister is very healthy, assuming too much responsibility is not. Siblings need to balance their caretaking responsibilities with being a typical kid.

Do not forget to give special attention to siblings

Because children tend to equate attention with love, siblings of children with special needs tend to feel neglected and unloved. Set aside special one-on-one time with siblings, such as bedtime, bathtime, and trips to the movies, zoo, park or shopping. This special time makes siblings feel important and cherished.

Do not put restrictions on family activities

Try to find family activities that everyone can enjoy, such as swimming, picnics, travel or watching movies. These recreational activities and fun play opportunities encourage interaction and promote important connections among family members.

Do not ignore the possibility of teasing or bullying

Recognize that this is a real possibility—and notice the signs of distress. Ask your child’s school/teachers to encourage positive attitudes and acceptance. Teach your child how to handle unpleasant remarks and rehearse these scenarios. Consistently urge your child to talk openly about these scenarios.


Summary

Because a great deal of complexity and individuality exists within families, the effects of having a sibling with disabilities can vary greatly depending on the child. Typical siblings are at risk for numerous behavioral, social and emotional struggles, and the stress associated with the presence of a disabled sibling is ongoing. Consequently, these risks and stressors must be managed continuously across the sibling’s life span.

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