Supporting your typically developing child
Typically developing children have a range of feelings about siblings with disability. These children also need to feel that they’re just as important to you as your child with disability – that you care about them and what they’re going through just as much.
Here are some ideas for supporting typically developing children.
Celebrate your typically developing child’s sibling 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 happy’.
Talk about feelings with your typically developing child
When you encourage your child to share her thoughts and feelings, and when you listen without judgment or blame, you send the message that it’s OK for your child to feel the way she does. For example, ‘I understand you feel angry when Violet pulls your hair’.
You could also talk with your child about how his brother or sister with disability might think, feel and behave. For example, ‘I know Ari doesn’t use words, but he loves it when you play Thomas with him’. This can help your child understand how his sibling with disability sees the world.
Talking about your own feelings
When you talk about your own feelings about your child’s disability, you set a good example for all your children. It’s OK to show your children that you have lots of different feelings about the situation too.
Here are some examples of how you could talk about your feelings:
- ‘Sam, I felt happy when you helped your brother put on his hat.’
- ‘Stevie has fallen over and hurt herself. I feel sad about that.’
- ‘I get annoyed when people ask me lots of questions about your sister, but I also feel glad that they’re interested. Sometimes I tell them I don’t want to talk about it.’
Spend time with 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, ‘Lukas, I’ve been at the doctors with Evie a lot this week. I wonder whether you’re feeling a bit frustrated about that?’
You can get your child to choose some activities that you can do together. For example, ‘Sarah, I’m looking forward to spending time with you after school today. I thought we could do some drawing. Or is there something you really want to do?’
Teenagers are more independent, but your teenage child will still appreciate you giving her one-to-one time. This shows her that she’s important too.
You can help your typically developing child build self-confidence by talking with him about what he’s good at and what he enjoys doing. This will help your child feel like he matters and is an important part of the family, even when his sibling needs extra attention.
Solve problems together
Each day, you and your typically developing child will probably come across tricky experiences and emotions. Shared problem-solving is a good way to work through them.
First it’s important to recognise your child’s emotions before you try to solve problems. For example, you might see that she’s getting angry about something that her sibling is doing. You could say, ‘Megan, it looks like you’re angry that Miles won’t turn off his favourite show on the TV. It’s OK to feel angry’.
Pause for a moment to give your child time to calm down. Then you can work on the problem together. Depending on how old your child is, he might need more or less help to understand his feelings, calm down and come up with solutions.
Older children and teenagers can probably do some independent problem-solving, but some problems might be too big for them. For example, your child might feel frightened of her sibling’s challenging behaviour. This is something the whole family can work on together, perhaps with the help of the professionals who work with your child.
Help your typically developing child connect with others
Feeling connected to people within and outside the family is important for all children.
For your typically developing child, this can happen by playing and socialising with friends, both those with and without siblings with disability. You could also help your typically developing child connect with others through team sports, extracurricular activities, or church and community organisations.
Older children and teenagers need the opportunity to spend time with friends without having to include their siblings.
Peer support groups for siblings might also help your child better understand disability, make more friends, get new ideas for handling tricky situations, and feel OK about himself and his feelings. These groups often operate through disability services or associations, local councils or young carer support services.
Talk about the disability
Your typically developing child might not understand her sibling’s disability. Your child might ask questions like, ‘Did I cause it?’, ‘Will it go away?’ or ‘Will I catch it?’ It’s best to answer your child’s questions as honestly as possible, in language she can understand.
It’s also good to let your child know what’s likely to happen to his sibling, while being positive and realistic. For example, ‘Asha has cerebral palsy. For Asha, that means that the muscles in her legs don’t work properly. She needs to use a wheelchair right now, but she’s having physiotherapy to help her legs work better’.
Encouraging your typically developing child to sometimes take part in her sibling’s therapy activities can also help her understand her sibling’s disability.
Talk about other people’s reactions to disability
You might feel worried about people’s reactions to your child’s disability, especially how these reactions might affect your typically developing child. Your child will find it easier to respond to other people’s reactions if he’s prepared for them.
You can talk with your child about how other people might react to her brother or sister and how that might make her feel. Let your child know it’s OK to feel sad if people say hurtful things. It might help her to have a few things that she can say back. For example, ‘Chrissy’s brain just works differently from yours and mine’.
You can also let your child know that it’s OK to say he doesn’t want to talk about it, and that he doesn’t have to answer questions about his sister or brother if he doesn’t want to.
Get support for siblings of children with disability
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, or trying hard to do well or please everybody.
The professionals supporting you and your family might be able to give you some advice. Alternatively, if you’re worried about any of your children, it might help if you and your child talk with a psychologist or counsellor.
A sibling support group might help typically developing children cope and give them a chance to meet other children or teenagers in similar circumstances. MyTime has good resources, as does Siblings Australia.
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.