If your child has a disability or complex medical condition you know that this child is not the only member of your family who is affected by this diagnosis. Your entire family will likely feel the effects.
Being a sibling of a child with special needs may lead to positive traits like greater empathy, resilience and a strong sense of responsibility. At the same time, there is a large burden placed on the sibling’s shoulders. And, whether your children are 2 or 22, you want to be intentional about supporting their emotional needs.
Feelings Experienced by Siblings
Each family is unique, and each member in the family may have a different journey of living with someone with a disability. Like parents, siblings may go through stages in working toward acceptance and have both positive and negative feelings. Learning about these stages and talking about them will help your children understand their feelings.
Siblings may sometimes feel:
- Neglected or unloved,
- Unable to express feelings in words and might act out instead,
- Frustrated that their own problems get overlooked or seen as less important,
- Isolated because they may not see other children with siblings who have disabilities,
- Determined to be perfect to compensate for the other sibling’s challenges, or
- Sad, anxious or out of control in situations.
Talking with Your Typically Developing Child about a Sibling’s Diagnosis
Harriet Redman, founder and executive director of WisconSibs, states, “The key is to have open and honest communication with your typically developing child. How you talk about your child’s disability or medical condition depends on their sibling’s age. For younger children keeping things simple is important.”1
As your children grow, you can explain things in more detail and help them be familiar with the terms and language used to explain a sibling’s diagnosis or medical condition.
In the meantime, parents can prepare themselves for open communication by talking with other parents and people they trust. They can read books and watch videos with their children that help explain disabilities. This opens opportunities to answer your children’s questions as they come up. Regularly spending time alone with each of your children reassures the sibling that they are an important member of the family.
1WisconSibs resources include: Sibsack (Free to families) and Parent Guide. For more resources go to firstname.lastname@example.org or call Harriet Redman at 920.968.1742.
For Young Children:
- Sesame Street, SiblingGuide
- Sibs.org (UK), Supporting Young Siblings
- Sibling Leadership Network, Resources for Young Siblings
For Kids of All Ages:
- Sibling Leadership Network, Resources for Teen Siblings
- Sibling Support Project, Publications
- Child Mind Institute, Advice from Siblings of Special-Needs Kids
- “Siblings of Children with Autism: A Guide for Families,” Sandra L. Harris, PhD and Beth A. Glasberg, PhD.
- “Views from Our Shoes: A Collection of Stories about Growing Up with a Brother or Sister with Special Needs,” Don Meyer.