Sibling relationships are typically the longest relationships people have, and usually involve multiple roles which change and vary over the course of the lifespan. Accordingly, they play a substantial role in the development and adjustment of a person. How is this relationship then affected when one of the siblings has a disability and in particular an intellectual disability?
Research in this area shows different disability profiles have different impacts on siblings as well as the entire family structure and to date there has been little research which explores the relationship between typically developing children and their sibling with an intellectual disability. Also, research usually tells us that parents and siblings usually have different perspectives about the quality of the sibling relationship. Essentially, parents are found to perceive the relationship to be less positive than their children do.
A new study published early this year (2020) has revealed some interesting insights into the relationship of typically developing children who have a sibling with an intellectual disability.
The study conducted by Zaidman-Zait, Yechezkiely & Regev sampled two groups of mothers and siblings. One group included typically developing children whose sibling did not have an intellectual disability, and the other included typically developing children whose sibling did have an intellectual disability. Researchers tested whether mothers and children’s perspectives on the quality of the sibling relationship differed for both groups. They also explored whether having a sibling with an intellectual disability affected siblings social behavioural adjustment.
Researchers used questionnaires which were answered by both mothers and siblings, as well as drawings conducted by children in both groups. Children were asked to draw a picture of themselves and their sibling and drawings were coded according to distance between figures, size and location. Drawings were utilised as part of the study to access certain components that children may not be able to express through language alone.
The results of the study revealed that for the group of children whose sibling had an intellectual disability mothers reported the relationship was characterised by higher levels of empathy and teaching behaviours and lower levels of conflict and rivalry. The children in this group also reported lower levels of conflict and higher levels of closeness within the relationship. Contrary to previous research, both the children and the mother’s perspectives were similar and they both reported higher positive relationship characteristics.
The children’s pictures also provided evidence of a more positive sibling relationship for the typically developing and intellectually disabled sibling group. Pictures indicated stronger evidence of support and investment in the relationship. This is supported by previous research which suggests children whose sibling has an intellectual disability experience personal growth, and emotional strength, reflected in character traits such as perseverance, motivation, maturity, sense of responsibility and increased social skills.
The study also found that although there were differences in the quality of the sibling relationship between the groups, there was no direct effect of having a sibling with an intellectual disability on children’s social and emotional adjustment. What seemed to have more impact on a siblings social and emotional adjustment was the quality of the sibling relationship. If the relationship was characterised by higher levels of rivalry, power and conflict, then the child was more likely to display those behaviours.
Finally, the inclusion and the placement of a parent in the children’s pictures also lead to a couple of conclusions. Firstly, it explains the increased caregiving burden for parents and siblings of intellectually disabled children. As well it suggests the parental influence is crucial to the relationship between the siblings and the way that typically developing sibling perceive the complex situation and how they are able to deal with it.
The study while small in sample size, provides evidence to the positive aspects of having a sibling with an intellectual disability. It shows it is the quality of the sibling relationship that is directly related to psychological adjustment, over and above simply having a sibling with an intellectual disability. Sibling relationships that are characterized by higher levels of empathy and support and lower levels of conflict and rivalry are essentially, more likely to result in well-rounded and well-adjusted children.
Zaidman-Zait, A., Yechezkiely, M., & Regev, D. (2020). The quality of the relationship between typically developing children and their siblings with and without intellectual disability: Insights from children’s drawing. Research in Developmental Disabilities (96), retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0891422219302045