Supporting siblings

24th May 2016

Siblings, like mums, dads and other family members, need support to help them adjust to their disabled brother’s or sister’s needs. Monica McCaffrey shares her experience of the needs of siblings of disabled children.

Siblings need attention from you, they need help to understand their brother or sister’s disability and they need to be included in the things that their disabled sibling is doing. They also need help with their own feelings. If their needs are overlooked, young siblings may become clingy, have difficult behaviour or feel resentful of their disabled brother or sister.

Sibling relationships

Like most children, siblings like to be able to get on well with their disabled brother or sister. Siblings sometimes feel caring and protective towards their disabled brother or sister and at other times fed up and irritated with them. It’s like this in all families, regardless of whether or not there is disability. However, there are some things that are different for siblings of disabled children such as helping with the care their disabled brother or sister needs; having to deal with public prejudice and feeling that other people don’t understand what it is like in their family.

Start early

You can support siblings with their own needs from a young age. This will help them enjoy family life and cope better with any difficult issues. There are some important things that you can do to support them.

Giving siblings attention

You already have a lot of to do, sometimes without much sleep or support. Giving attention to siblings may seem like another task when you’re very busy. However, giving attention doesn’t have to take lots of time. It’s better they have your full attention for a short amount of time, than a lot of time with distractions.

Why it’s important:
  • It shows siblings that you love them and helps them feel that they matter too. For example, they will feel loved when they find a nice note from you in their school lunchbox.
  • It helps to reduce jealousy of their disabled brother or sister when siblings get one to one time with you. For example, a sibling having 15 minutes each day to play a ball game with you.
  • It helps siblings develop good behaviour when you give them attention for doing the right thing. For example, when your sibling child is playing well with another child, give a hug or say ‘that’s a lovely game’.

Talking about disability

Many mums and dads put off telling siblings about their brother or sister’s disability. They often worry that telling a sibling will be too upsetting or may feel that children don’t need to know until they’re older. However, just like you, siblings need to know what is happening to help them cope better.

Why it’s important:
  • It helps siblings understand why things are different with their brother or sister. For example, a sibling can understand that their brother or sister gets more attention from you because they need more help, and not because you love the disabled child more.
  • It helps improve the relationship between siblings and their disabled brother or sister. For example, a sibling whose brother or sister has difficultly with playing, can understand that this is because of the disability, not because their brother or sister doesn’t like them.
  • If you don’t tell siblings about the disability, the effect on siblings is usually worse than telling them. They may hear things from others or read things on the internet that may not be correct. They may make up their own version of what is happening, which may be worse than the reality. When they find out that you have kept the information from them, they may feel angry and mistrustful of you.
How to tell siblings about the disability
  • Start early. Tell your sibling child at the time of diagnosis.
  • Answer questions as they come up.
  • Be open and honest – this helps your sibling child to trust you.
  • Keep siblings up to date if things change. They will also need more detailed information as they get older.

Make a scrapbook about your family

Help your sibling child make pages for each person in the family. Make it fun and colourful, adding a bit each day. Stick in pictures and drawings of friends; pets; things they like and don’t like; things they find easy to do and things they find hard to do. On the page about your disabled child, add some information about their condition.

Include them in what is happening

Children like to be involved in things that the other children in the family are doing. Young siblings often see things like physiotherapy or speech and language therapy as fun, especially if there are new toys or interesting equipment around. They like to know about the places their disabled brothers and sisters go and meet the people who support them. They also want to know things like who will look after them if you have to stay in hospital with their disabled brother or sister.

Why it’s important:
  • It helps to reduce jealousy if siblings are included in some way in their brother or sister’s treatments or therapies. For example, a sibling won’t feel left out if invited to join in for part of a physiotherapy session.
  • It helps siblings feel included if they have a say in what will help them at difficult times. For example, making plans with a sibling for coping with a brother or sister’s hospital stay.
  • It helps siblings to understand more about why their brother or sister needs extra attention and help. For example, a sibling can learn a lot from being included in a hospital appointment and having things explained by a consultant.

Support siblings with their feelings

Siblings experience a range of feelings living with a disabled brother or sister. Some of these can be difficult but often they don’t talk about them. They may feel guilty about being angry with their disabled brother or sister or not feel it is OK for them to have negative feelings.

Why it’s important:
  • It gives siblings permission to have negative feelings about their brother or sister which are a natural part of all sibling relationships. For example, letting a sibling know that it is normal to feel annoyed if their disabled brother or sister breaks a toy.
  • It helps siblings communicate their feelings through words rather than behaviour. For example, a sibling can say they are jealous rather than hit another child to get your attention.
  • It helps siblings to feel less isolated with their problems. For example, a sibling may be worried about their brother or sister if they need hospital treatment.

How to support siblings with their feelings

  • Name the feelings you see. It helps children to have their feelings acknowledged so when you can see they are feeling jealous or angry let them know this: ‘I can see it makes you jealous when I spend time with your brother’ or ‘You’re feeling angry with your sister now, is there anything I can do to help?’
  • Talk with your sibling child about the good things about having a disabled brother or sister and about the things that are difficult too.

Make a worry box

Help your sibling child decorate a small box with a lid. Put in some slips of paper and a pencil for your sibling child to write or draw their worries. These are for you to read and talk about later. This is particularly helpful if children struggle to talk about difficult feelings or if they want to talk to you at a busy time. Writing their worries in the worry box ensures they are acknowledged and not forgotten.

By including and helping your sibling child you can help them to deal with any emotions they may have in relation to their disabled brother or sister.

Further help and support

Has tips for parents and information about the needs and experiences of siblings. Sibs also runs workshops for parents.

Young Carers

Monica McCaffrey is Director of Sibs.

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