Upsides of having siblings with disability
There are many positives for your child in having a sibling 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, responsible, independent and empathetic. They’re also unlikely to take their own good health for granted.
How siblings might feel and think about disability
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 about your family situation.
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, angry or confused about things that happen – for example, if her brother or sister with disability takes a toy, or goes into hospital.
Here are some of the many and varied feelings that siblings of children with disability experience.
Your child might feel proud of being the sibling of a child with disability and be pleased when his brother or sister learns a new skill like climbing up a ladder at the playground. Your child might also feel proud of understanding disability or being part of disability organisations.
Anger, resentment and jealousy
Your child might think her sibling with disability is getting too much attention. For example, she might be jealous that her sibling goes to therapy. She might feel that it takes up a lot of your time and stops her from being able to do what she wants.
Your child might feel that family rules and responsibilities aren’t fair. For example, he might feel angry if his sibling has fewer or no chores to do, or if his sibling seems to ‘get away with’ challenging behaviour.
And if you have a teenage child, she might feel resentful that her freedom is restricted by her sibling, especially if she feels pressure to care for her sibling.
Embarrassment and guilt
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.
Your child might also feel embarrassed about answering questions about her sibling, especially if she doesn’t understand the disability and what caused it.
Your child might feel sad that his brother or sister can’t do as much as he can, or because he can’t play the same games with his brother or sister that other siblings can. He might just be sad because family life isn’t like it was before.
Fear and worry
Depending on your child’s stage of development, she might worry about whether she’ll get sick too, or about how sick her brother or sister is. This might be a particular issue if your child doesn’t understand what the disability is, what caused it, or why her sibling has to have medication or intervention.
If your child with disability has challenging and unpredictable behaviour, this might be a worry for your typically developing child. He might worry about when the behaviour will happen next, or feel afraid that he might get hurt.
If your child is older, he might worry about what responsibility and role she’ll have in her sibling’s life. She might worry that she’ll spend her adult life caring for her sibling.
And your child might just be scared about what will happen to her or her sibling and family in the future.
A sense of being alone
Your child might feel alone because ‘no one understands what it’s like’ to have a sibling with disability. If your child has caring responsibilities, he might feel that he doesn’t have enough time for friends, or he might not want to invite friends over because his brother or sister has to be with them.
Your child might feel stressed for many reasons. For example, she might sense that you’re stressed, or she might be trying too hard to be good and not cause trouble.
If your child is older, he might put pressure on himself to achieve or to cope with personal problems without asking for your help because he doesn’t want to add to your burden.
You can support siblings of children with disability by letting them know that it’s OK to sometimes feel angry and worried, and to sometimes feel happy and proud. All these feelings are normal and understandable.
Factors that affect thoughts and feelings about siblings with disability
Many things can affect how siblings of children with disability think, feel and behave. Some are individual to your child like her age, personality, temperament and birth order. Other things outside your child can also affect how she feels.
If your child is older, he’s likely to find it easier to understand and adjust to the way things are. A younger child might be more worried about himself. For example, he might think, ‘Will I catch it?’
Older children and teenagers are better at saying what their thoughts are and working through unhelpful thoughts. They’re probably better at talking about more complicated issues too.
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. If your child can’t understand her sibling or her sibling can’t understand her, this can affect the relationship.
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.