Siblings of children with disability: feelings
It’s natural for children to have many feelings about having a sibling with disability.
Sometimes children might feel happy and proud – for example, when their brother or sister with disability starts to talk. At other times children might feel sad, embarrassed, angry, resentful or confused – for example, if their brother or sister with disability takes a toy, can’t play the same games that other siblings can, or takes up a lot of family time and stops them from doing what they want to do.
Most of all, your other children need to feel that they’re just as important to you as your child with disability. They need to feel that you care about them and what they’re going through. You can help them feel this way by:
- talking with them about their feelings
- solving problems together
- spending time together
- helping them connect with their sibling with disability
- helping them understand their sibling’s disability
- finding the right support for them.
Talking about feelings with siblings of children with disability
You can send the message that it’s OK for your child to have many and varied feelings about their sibling with disability and their situation by:
- encouraging them to share their feelings – for example, ‘How did you feel when your friends were here and Shafali was banging her head?’
- listening without judgment or blame – for example, ‘It sounds like you felt really embarrassed and didn’t know what to do’
- talking about your own feelings about your child’s disability – for example, ‘Sam, I feel happy when you help your brother put on his hat’.
Talking with your child about their feelings and your own sets a good example. It lets your child know that they don’t have to cope on their own and that it’s OK to ask for help.
Your child might sometimes feel hurt, sad, or embarrassed by other people’s reactions to their sibling’s disability. It might help your child to have a few things that they can say in this situation. For example, ‘Chrissy’s brain just works differently from yours and mine’. You can also let your child know that they don’t have to answer questions about their sibling if they don’t want to.
Solving problems with siblings of children with disability
Shared problem-solving is a good way to work through your child’s difficult experiences and emotions.
It’s important to start by recognising your child’s emotions. For example, ‘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, they might need more or less help to understand their feelings, work through calming down steps for children, and come up with solutions.
There might be some problems that are too big for your child to solve, even with your help. For example, your child might feel frightened of their sibling’s challenging behaviour. In this situation, it might be a good idea to ask for help from the professionals who work with your child with disability.
Spending time with siblings of children with disability
If your child with disability needs extra care and services, your family might have to make time for these in your family routines. Sometimes this might affect the activities your other children can do or make it harder for you to spend quality time with them.
But spending quality time with all your children is important. It sends the message that they’re important to you. It also gives you the chance to listen and understand what’s happening for them.
When things are busy in your family, it might help to remember that quality time can happen anytime and anywhere, in the middle of ordinary days and situations. It can be a shared laugh when you’re bathing your toddler or a good conversation in the car with your teenage child. It’s all about giving your child your full attention in these everyday moments.
Planning one-on-one time with all your children is also a good idea. You can get your child to choose some activities that you can do together. For example, ‘Clancy, 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?’
It’s a normal part of family life for all children to help their siblings. Your child can feel helpful and trusted if you encourage them to help with caring for their sibling with disability. But it’s important to keep an eye on the caring responsibilities your child takes on. It’s also important to make sure that everyone in your family helps with family chores.
Helping siblings connect with children with disability
Children can sometimes find it hard to connect if their sibling with disability has communication difficulties or challenging behaviour. And if children have trouble understanding each other, it can affect their relationship.
You can help by explaining to your child how their sibling with disability behaves or communicates. For example, ‘Ari doesn’t use words. He uses his hands to show us how he feels. When he claps like that, it means he’s happy or wants more’.
Play can also be a great way to help your children connect. Play gives them the chance to communicate, develop shared interests, work on problems and just have fun. It also gives you the chance to point out positive things about how they’re playing, which can help them feel good about themselves and their relationship. For example, ‘Zac and Malik, you’re both smiling. It looks like playing together is making you both happy’.
Helping siblings understand disability
Children’s understanding of disability varies depending on their own age and stage of development.
You might find that your child asks 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 they can understand. 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 child to take part in their sibling’s therapy activities sometimes can help them understand their sibling’s disability. And being part of a disability organisation can help older children learn more about their sibling’s disability.
Finding support for siblings of children with disability
Feeling connected to other people can help all children feel a sense of belonging and value. They can get this by playing and socialising with friends, some of whom might have siblings with disability too. You could also help your child connect with people outside your family through sport, extracurricular activities or religious and community organisations.
Peer support groups for siblings of children with disability can help your child make friends, get new ideas for handling tricky situations with their sibling, and feel OK about themselves and their feelings. These groups often operate through disability services or associations, local councils or young carer support services. You can find out more from Siblings Australia.
Siblings of children with disability often have ups and downs that affect the way they feel and behave. But sometimes children don’t ‘bounce back’ from the downs, and this starts to affect other parts of their lives. This can be a sign that children are having mental health problems. It’s a good idea to get professional support if you notice that your child is:
- sleeping more or less than usual
- eating more or less than usual
- being more irritable
- showing less interest in things they used to enjoy
- avoiding or being aggressive towards their sibling with disability
- having trouble with schoolwork
- not wanting to spend time with friends
- pretending to have a disability as well
- trying too hard to do well or please others.
Your GP or the professionals supporting you and your family might be able to give you some advice. Or you could speak to a psychologist or counsellor.
Raising children is an important job, and looking after yourself helps you do the job well. When you look after yourself physically, mentally and emotionally, you’re better able to give your children the time, energy and support they need to grow and thrive.