siblings piggyback photo

There are at least half a million siblings in the UK who are growing up with a disabled brother or sister. In an average sized secondary school, that’s at least two siblings in every classroom. However, many schools would struggle to identify those siblings. 

Growing up with a disabled brother or sister brings both joy and challenges. Many siblings learn skills and develop abilities from their experiences, but siblings can have extra worries and responsibilities and can find it difficult to find space within their families and to get their own needs met. It is important that the positive impact siblings bring to their families and the friendship and support they provide to their brothers and sisters are both acknowledged and celebrated.  

Young carers 

Half of all young carers in the UK are carers for their brother or sister. Many siblings undertake practical tasks with their brother or sister such as feeding, administering medication, lifting and handling, sitting, and helping in the night. They may also support their parents, by listening to their worries, doing housework, going shopping, or cooking meals. Many siblings also offer emotional support such as helping their brother or sister to socialise and provide friendship.  

“As a young carer, you feel under constant pressure. I know my sister needs constant supervision: I understand her different needs, and I love her with all my heart, but it can be scary. It can feel like the world is on your shoulders. I worry about her future, and I feel like I have an extra layer of worry.” Rose, aged 13 

How can siblings be lonely? 

Siblings often live in crowded and busy houses. They may live in homes where there are lots of people coming and going: this might include carers and support workers; therapists; specialists or family members who help with support. The assumption is that siblings can’t be lonely because they are surrounded by people.  The truth is, they are lonelier precisely because of this. Siblings often tell us that no one asks about what life is like for them or asks them how they feel. Siblings also become used to having their own needs prioritised in favour of their brother or sister. This might mean that siblings are not able to pursue their own interests, have friends over to play, or invite children over for a sleepover. Many siblings find it hard to talk about their brother or sister’s needs with their friends. Loneliness can impact sibling wellbeing. 

How can parents support siblings? 

Parents often feel worried and guilty about the impact having a disabled brother or sister might have on their sibling child. It can feel like a struggle to meet the different needs of all children in the family. However, there are some simple things you can do which can make a really big difference to siblings.  

Tips for supporting siblings

  1.  Let siblings know they are not alone – they are part of a large sibling community! 
  1. Siblings gain value from being with siblings who get what life is like for them too.  Find out if there is sibling or young carer support locally. 
  1. Help siblings find more information to help them to deal with some of the tricky stuff at  
  1. Encourage friends, family and those coming into your home to acknowledge siblings and take an interest in them.   
  1. Accept offers of help –  so that you can support siblings to have their own lives, interests and hobbies.  
  1. Let siblings go first sometimes – whether it is choosing the movie you watch as a family or picking the game you play together; this will help siblings feel that they matter. 
  1. Try to spend some time each day just with your sibling child. 
  1. Model coping strategies – if your sibling child sees you taking positive steps to increase your wellbeing, they are more likely to follow in your footsteps. 

Asking for help 

Getting help and support not only helps with the difficult times, but good support also helps to affirm the many positive aspects of sibling relationships and family life for siblings. It is important to remember that many siblings do not provide care yet still have fewer choices and opportunities than their peers.  Speaking to schoolteachers about your sibling child and taking a short break help (whether formal or informal) is crucial for whole family wellbeing.  

What help is available? 

YoungSibs is an online information service for siblings aged 7-17.  The service provides a range of resources including age-appropriate information on disabilities and health conditions. There is a wealth of information about how to cope with sibling life at school, maintaining good mental health, and tips about what siblings can do if they are worried about the future. Importantly, there is also information about finding ways to develop positive relationships with their brothers and sisters. Sibs also writes monthly blogs for children on relevant topics such as celebrating family occasions, changing schools, or learning about new diagnoses. There is also the opportunity for siblings to write to a sibling advisor with any specific worries or problems, receiving a personalised response from the Sibs Team. 

What other sibling support is available? 

Having opportunities for siblings to meet each other is a valuable source of support and comfort for siblings. Some siblings attend local sibling support groups, many children receive support from young carer services and others may have the opportunity to meet other siblings through local and national events for families of disabled children. It is important for siblings to know they are not alone!  Sibs has also developed Sibs Talk, an intervention for primary school-aged children. The charity also works to train professionals wishing to set up sibling support groups as well as bespoke workshops for parents on supporting siblings.  

Sibs is the UK charity supporting brothers and sisters of disabled children and adults and provides support to siblings across their lifespan.