By Raising Children Network
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Boy with cystic fibrosis in playground with his sisters
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Having a child with disability in the family affects every family member, including siblings. Most children adjust pretty well to having a brother or sister with disability.

Upsides of having a sibling with disability

There are many positives for your child in having a sibling with disability.

Families can get closer after the birth of a child with disability. Children who have a sibling with disability are often more caring and kind, sensitive and responsive to the needs of others, tolerant and compassionate, mature, appreciative of their own health, responsible, independent and empathetic.

How siblings might feel and think

Siblings of children with disability have good times and not so good times, just like everyone else. It’s normal for your child to have lots of different feelings and thoughts.

Sometimes your typically developing child might feel happy about good things that happen – for example, when her brother or sister with disability starts to talk. At other times she might feel sad or angry about things that happen – for example, if her brother or sister with disability takes a toy, or goes into hospital.

Proud
Your child might feel proud of being a sibling of a child with disability and be pleased when his brother or sister learns a new skill – for example, climbing up a ladder at the playground, or being able to communicate wants and needs. Your child might also feel proud of understanding disability or being part of disability organisations.

Anger, resentful and jealous
Your child might think her sibling with disability is getting all the attention, or that family rules and responsibilities aren’t fair. She might be resentful if she thinks that her freedom is restricted, or that she has too much responsibility.

Embarrassed and guilty
Your child might be embarrassed about how his sibling looks and behaves in public, and what his friends might think. For example, he might think, ‘They won’t want to be my friend if they see my brother banging his head’. He might feel guilty about having these thoughts.

Sad
Your child might feel sad that her brother or sister can’t do as much as she can, or because she can’t play the same games with her brother or sister like other siblings can. She might just be sad because family life isn’t like it was before.

Scared and anxious
Depending on your child’s stage of development, he might worry about whether he’ll get sick too, or about how sick his brother or sister is. Your child might also be scared about what will happen to him or his sibling and family in the future.

Lonely
Your child might feel that ‘no one understands what it’s like’.

Stressed
Your child might feel stressed for many reasons, possibly because she’s trying too hard ‘to be good and not cause any trouble’.

Guiding sibling thoughts, feelings and behaviour

Thoughts, feelings and behaviour are linked. Your child’s thoughts can influence how she feels and behaves.

If you can help your typically developing child think about the positive side of having a sibling with disability, you might be able to guide him towards feeling good and behaving well.

What affects thoughts, feelings and behaviour

A lot of different things can affect how siblings of children with disability think, feel and behave.

Age
If your child is older, she’s likely to find it easier to understand and adjust to the way things are. A younger child might be more worried about herself. For example, she might think, ‘Will I catch it?’

Older children are better at saying what their thoughts are and working through unhelpful thoughts. They’re probably better at talking about more complicated issues too.

Birth order
Children born into a family in which a child with disability is their older sibling generally take it in their stride. They’ve never known any different. But it’s still important to be aware of their thoughts and feelings.

Type or severity of disability
Children often find it harder if their sibling has trouble communicating wants or needs or has challenging behaviour.

Medical and care needs
If your child with disability needs extra care and services, it might mean your family has to make changes that affect family routines and daily life. For example, it might affect getting to school on time, or it might change the activities you can all do together.

Family and parental wellbeing
How your family adjusts to having a child with disability, including your relationship with your partner, can influence your children’s wellbeing.

Video Children with disability: sibling feelings

In this short video, parents of children with disability describe how their typically developing children feel and manage everyday life with a brother or sister with disability. These children show tolerance, compassion and understanding. They’re also good at explaining their sibling’s disability to friends. Having a sibling with disability can be an enriching experience for children.

 

When siblings need extra 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 he used to enjoy
  • avoiding or being aggressive towards his 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.  

You can read more about how to support siblings of children with disability. You can also find more information about where to go for support and how to choose the right service in our articles on choosing services, the disability services environment and child and parent disability services.
 
 
 
  • Last updated or reviewed 29-10-2012
  • Acknowledgements This article was written with help from Kate Davis, RMIT University, Melbourne.