The complex bond shared by siblings has been described as the most influential of all relationships. Enduring ties that join brothers and sisters outlive marriages, survive well past the years of their parents, and are formed long before the birth of their own children.
When your family includes disabled children, sibling relationships can become even more dynamic. In the past, even family-centered approaches to understanding the impact of disability have concentrated primarily on parents. The voices of siblings have been left unheard. These children have equally special needs, and more information is needed on their unique perspectives.
Disability by Association
Researchers have recently corrected the false belief that the impact of disability on a family is universally damaging. While chronic illness does introduce greater levels of stress for all members of the family, the result is not necessarily negative.
Children with disabled siblings are offered unique opportunities to develop positive attributes, including loyalty, insight, and altruism. They embrace a greater tolerance for others and become more attuned to society’s treatment of differences.
Unfortunately, children with disabled siblings are often not mere observers of discrimination. In the form of rejection and intolerance from peers, they are also the victims of social stigmas.
Peter Burke, author of Disability and Impairment: Working with Children and Families, has termed this experience “disability by association.” This knowledge heightens the need for “special-needs parents” and professionals to view disability as a source of adversity met by the entire family.
Reducing Guilt through Validation and Acceptance
Many parents of mixed-ability children agonize over the seemingly impossible task of dedicating equal time to all family members. Several recent studies should bring some relief. Even young children realize that fair treatment is more important than equal treatment. However, when parents join the child with a disability for a hospitalization or drastic differences in household chores are assigned, a child’s understanding of differential needs can be exceeded.
To reduce rivalry and feelings of isolation, special-needs parents should be active listeners and validate the feelings of all family members. Parents can prevent the internalization of resentment by communicating that siblings do not have to feel guilty. The consequences of long-standing guilt can have detrimental psychological effects, leading to shame and a feeling of worthlessness.
The Upside of Sibling Rivalry
Parents working tirelessly to avoid sibling rivalry may be denying their children a valuable opportunity to develop crucial social skills. Learning how to express wants and needs, testing limits, and feeling empowered to assert oneself are skills gained through the role-modeling of some of our earliest teachers—our siblings. The essential factor that seems to determine whether rivalry is damaging or empowering is the level of warmth shared.
Brothers and sisters with the nurturance of occasional rivalry matched with affection, acceptance, and support are at a great advantage in the development of several important life skills. A strong bond with siblings forms a secure bridge to the outside social world.
While it is important to recognize the dangers of paying too little attention to or overburdening siblings of disabled children, it is also essential to understand the research that provides hope to these children and their families.
The experience of having a sibling can offer positive opportunities for development that are nearly impossible to recreate. Special-needs parents, embrace the challenge of disability as a family, and support your children in their growth!
"What About Me? – Support for the Siblings of Disabled Children" - An excellent article on issues related to siblings of disabled kids, concluding with a brief but useful list of other resources.
The Sibling Support Project - A national organization “dedicated to the lifelong concerns of brothers and sisters of people who have special health, developmental, or mental health concerns.
Brothers and Sisters of Disabled Children. By Peter Burke. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2003. 160p. ISBN 1843100436. Details the experiences of non-disabled siblings of children with disabilities through family interviews and one-on-one meetings.