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Siblings of children with disability have lots of different thoughts and feelings about their situation – some good, some not so good. You can help your typically developing child stay positive and feel OK about things.
Two little girls with Down Syndrome
 

Supporting your typically developing child: some ideas

Your typically developing child might feel proud, angry, resentful, sad, embarrassed, lonely or stressed – and more. All of these feelings are normal. But whatever he feels about his sibling, he also needs to feel that you care about him and what he’s going through.

Here are some ideas for supporting your typically developing child.

Talk about your child’s feelings
When you encourage your child to share her thoughts and feelings, and when you listen without judgment or blame, you send that message that it’s OK for your child to feel the way she does. For example, ‘I understand you feel sad when Violet pulls your hair’.

Your child might ask questions such as, ‘Did I cause it?’, ‘Will it go away?’ or ‘Will I catch it?’ Try to answer your child’s questions as honestly as possible, in language he can understand. Talk about the future with your child. Let him know what’s likely to happen to his sibling, and try to be both positive and realistic. 

You could also talk with your child about how she thinks her brother or sister with disability might think, feel and behave. This can help your child understand how her sibling with disability sees the world – for example, activities her sibling enjoys or finds difficult and how her sibling feels about these activities.

You can read more about how your child might feel about having a sibling with disability.

Make time for your typically developing child
Juggling the demands and needs of all family members can be a challenge. Your typically developing child might notice if you’re spending more time with his sibling – for example, at professional appointments. Although you can’t help this, you can talk to your child about his feelings. You might say, ‘Luke, I’ve been at the doctors with Evie a lot this week. What do you think about that?’

You can get your child to choose some activities that you can do together. For example, ‘Stella, I’m looking forward to spending time with you after school today. I was thinking we could do some drawing. Or is there something you really want to do?’

Talk about your feelings
When you try to put your thoughts and feelings into words – good feelings and bad ones – you set a good example for your child. It’s OK to show your child that you have lots of different feelings about the situation too.

For example, ‘Tom, I felt happy when you helped your brother put on his hat’. Or ‘Stella has fallen over and hurt herself. I feel sad about that’.

Celebrate your child’s strengths
You can help your child build a positive sense of self and self-esteem by talking with her about what she’s good at and what she enjoys doing. Having positive self-esteem will help your child feel like she matters and is an important part of the family, even when her sibling needs extra attention.

Work on problem-solving
Each day, you and your child will probably come across tricky experiences and emotions. Shared problem-solving is a good way to work through them.

For example, you might recognise that your child is getting angry about something that his sibling is doing. You could say, ‘Miles, it looks like you’re angry that Megan won’t turn off her favourite show on the TV’. If you can get your child to calm down, you can work on the problem together. For example, ‘It’s OK to feel angry, but let’s take a few deep breaths. Now let’s think about how we can work things out’.

Depending on how old your child is, she might need more or less help to explain her feelings, calm down and come up with solutions. Older children and teenagers can probably solve problems on their own

Celebrate your children’s relationship
When you look out for the things your child enjoys doing with his brother or sister with disability, you can help your child focus on the positives. For example, you might notice that your children smile and laugh when they play cars together. You could say, ‘William, you’re smiling while you play cars with your brother. It looks like that makes you feel happy’.

Build on your child’s relationships
Feeling connected to people within and outside the family is important for all children. Try to arrange playdates for your child to socialise with other children, both those with and without siblings with disability.

Peer support groups for siblings might also help your child better understand disability, help her make more friends, give her new ideas for handling tricky situations and help her feel OK about herself and her feelings. These groups might operate through disability services or associations, local councils or young carer support services.

Talk about other people’s reactions
You might feel worried about other people’s reactions to your child’s disability, especially how these reactions might affect your typically developing child.

You can talk with your child about how other people might react to his brother or sister and how that might make him feel. Let your child know it’s OK to feel sad if people say hurtful things. It might help him to have a few things that he can say back. For example, ‘Chrissy’s brain just works differently from yours and mine’.

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Family roles, rules and responsibilities

It’s a normal part of life for any child to help brothers or sisters, and this goes for children who have a sibling with disability too. But it can be useful to keep an eye on how much and what kind of care your typically developing child is taking on. This will depend on your child’s age and maturity.

Here are some points to think about:

  • Try to give your child a choice about how much she helps her sibling. For example, ‘Sam I was hoping you could sit with Sophie while she does her stretches. Would you be happy to do that?’
  • Think about whether your child is old enough to take on the responsibility. Some responsibilities such as personal care-giving tasks or supervising a sibling might not be appropriate.
  • Think about how often and for how long your child is helping. You could even keep a record over a week or so, to get an accurate idea.
  • Consider what else might be going on for your child when you ask for extra support. For example, is he studying for exams? Does he want to spend time with his friends?

Family rules
Where possible, try to make rules consistent for all your children.

For example, try to have consistent consequences for all your children when they behave in ways you don’t like.

You can also try to be consistent with praising your children for the good stuff, which will increase the likelihood they’ll behave this way again. For example ‘Tom, I really like the way you set the table for the family’.

Making sure everyone in your family has a task to do, including your child with disability, can help your family with working together.

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It’s easy to get caught up in looking after your children’s needs, but looking after yourself is important too. That’s because being fit, well and happy keeps you in good shape for looking after other people.

Where to get support

Although siblings of children with disability are generally well adjusted, all children are different. Some children might find it harder than others and might need extra support.

As a parent, you’re the best judge of whether your child needs more support. It’s a good idea to ask for support if you notice that your typically developing child is:

  • sleeping more or less than usual
  • eating more or less than usual
  • being more irritable
  • showing less interest in things she used to enjoy
  • avoiding or being aggressive towards her sibling with disability
  • having trouble with schoolwork
  • not wanting to spend time with friends
  • behaving in an unusual way – for example, pretending to have a disability as well.

The professionals supporting you and your family might be able to provide some helpful advice. Alternatively, it might be helpful for you and your child to talk with a psychologist or counsellor.

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  • Last Updated 18-10-2012
  • Last Reviewed 18-10-2012
  • Acknowledgements This article was written with help from Kate Davis, RMIT University.
  • Giallo, R., & Gavidia-Payne, S. (2006). Child, parent and family factors as predictors of adjustment for siblings of children with a disability. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 50, 937-948.

    Rossiter, L., & Sharpe, D. (2001). The siblings of individuals with mental retardation: A quantitative integration of the literature. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 10, 65-84.

    Stoneman, Z. (2005). Siblings of children with disabilities: Research themes. Mental Retardation, 43, 339-350.

    Taunt, H.M., & Hastings, R.P. (2002). Positive impact of children with developmental disabilities on their families: A preliminary study. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 37, 410-420.