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By JULIE PEAKE, B.Soc.Sci (Hons – Psychology & Sociology), Dip Social Work, PG Dip SS Supervision. Registered Social Worker.   

When a child in a family has a disability and/or serious health need, it affects the whole family.  Each family member can be both strengthened and stressed from this situation. Research suggests that supporting siblings well is very important, just as important as parent support.   

Sibling relationships:  Research shows that the impact of a sibling having a disability/health need is varied. It may result in some jealousy or resentment when a sibling feels their brother/sister takes a lot of the parents/carers time and attention. Conversely children can develop a deeper understanding of differences and empathy for others as a result of having a sibling with a disability/health need (Fleary & Heffer, 2013; Gallivan et al 2014).   

General summary of positives and negatives 

Summary of positive impacts of having a sibling with a disability/health issue:  

  • Increased knowledge about health and disability 
  • Increased empathy and understanding of difference 
  • More positive coping strategies within and outside of the family  
  • Increased levels of family cohesion 

Summary of negative impacts of having a sibling with a disability/health issue: 

  • Anxiety and guilt (worried that they may “catch it” or they “caused” it – sometimes due to lack of information about what is happening) 
  • Anger, resentment or embarrassment (due to sibling behaviors or the time that parents spend with the sibling with the disability/health need) 
  • Grief and Loss (uncertainty about how to have a sibling relationship and what does this mean for the family) 
  • Breakdown in family communication and bonding 

What is available and easily accessible to support siblings?  There are a multitude of tip sheets, workbooks, books and videos available for those with internet and/or library access.  A lot of resources are aimed at parents to help guide them in their discussion and actions with siblings of the child/ren with the health/disability needs.     

In summary parents can help siblings and foster good relationships between their children by:  

  • Helping them to gain a better understanding of the disability or health need and how their brother/sister needs help with different things. 
  • Ensuring one on one quality time for the siblings – ie. make time for each child.  
  • Listen to children’s worries and concerns. Allow them to share their thoughts and acknowledge that their experiences, thoughts and feelings are normal, and they have nothing to feel bad about 

IHC offer a comprehensive free library service covering intellectual disability, autism and other developmental disabilities.  https://ihc.org.nz/library-page.   

Support from outside the family: Siblings tend to rely solely on their parents for information and support. Sibling support programs are now widely available in many countries.  These programs aim to buffer the effects of stress and help siblings to cope and function better by providing a supportive, non-judgmental environment with opportunities for positive interactions with peers and trained adults. Siblings of children with disabilities/health needs come together (for example, in workshops, holiday camps or online chat rooms) to share their experiences.   They are encouraged to express their emotions freely and safely with others who are likely to understand and empathize because of their own unique experiences as siblings.  Camps for example, may also enable siblings to take part in pleasurable recreational opportunities that might not otherwise have been possible due to the disability/health issue for their brother or sister.   

Not every sibling however will benefit from group programs, and some will not enjoy interacting with other siblings in this way.  Alternative support for siblings outside of the family can be accessed from professionals such as psychologists or counsellors.   

Summary:  Siblings have a unique bond with each other which is usually life-long. Having a sibling with a disability/health issue impacts this bond and will impact each sibling differently. If siblings are supported and provided with age appropriate information, they are more likely to positively adjust to having a sibling with a disability/chronic health condition.   

Parent to Parent offer support to siblings by way of “Sibshops”and “Sibcamps”.  Please check the website for further information and to enrol https://parent2parent.org.nz/services/sib-support/ 

References 

Fleary, S., & Heffer, R. (2013).  Impact of growing up with a chronically ill sibling on well siblings’ later adolescent functioning.  International Scholarly Research Notices Family Medicine.   

Gallivan, K., Newton, N., Wrightson, D., Tjosvold, L., Milne, A., Hartline, L. (2014).  A systematic review of interventions to support siblings of children with chronic illness or disability.  Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health. Vol 50 (10) p 26-38.  

Wheeler, M. J. (2006). Siblings perspectives: Some guidelines for parents. Reporter 11(2), 13-15. 

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