Supporting Siblings of Children with Disabilities
Support programs for family members of people with disabilities are often directed at the parents of such children. They usually need help with accepting and understanding the situation, so experts look to provide them with observation, intervention and coping strategies. They also provide them with information, put them in contact with other families who are in the same situation, etc. However, we often forget about the siblings of children with disabilities.
Very often, these siblings remain in the background, causing them to feel helpless and misunderstood. However, they too need unconditional support and attention.
“Part of the problem with the word ‘disability’ is that it immediately suggests an inability to see or hear or walk or do other things that many of us take for granted… These, it seems to me, are the real disabilities.”
The needs of siblings of children with disabilities
Because of their situation, siblings of children with disabilities have certain needs that require attention. Thus, according to educator Olga Lizasoain Rumeu, these children often have the need to:
- Receive information about their sibling’s disability, including repercussions and implications
- Be able to communicate and express their feelings, and for others to hear and understand them
- Be respected in their individuality (tastes, hobbies, activities, etc.)
- Establish a pact of responsibilities in relation to their sibling
Consequences that these siblings may experience
In addition, there are a number of consequences that these children may experience when living with a sibling with a disability. Some of them are:
- Feeling of guilt
- Misguided behavior to get attention
- Sleeping or eating problems
- School problems
- Compensation, trying to provide parents with what their sibling can’t give them because of their condition
- Shame and fear of what others will say on certain occasions
- Overprotection of their sibling, becoming “second parents”
- Fear, bewilderment and worry
- Isolation and loneliness
- Anger and rage for the situation they are experiencing
- Resentment for the loss of attention from the parents
But not all of the consequences are negative, as siblings of children with disabilities are also characterized as:
- Being mature.
- Having a broader vision of the world.
- Having a good self-concept.
- Presenting good social skills.
Caring for and supporting siblings of children with disabilities
Understandably, mothers and fathers who have a child with a disability spend a lot of time caring for their child. However, they must also make an effort to care for and support the rest of their children, providing them with equal treatment.
Therefore, it’s important that, from an early age, they tell their other children about their sibling’s abilities and limitations. Additionally, parents should be responsible for responding to any doubts and concerns in this regard. Likewise, it’s a good idea to create leisure and recreation spaces for the family, so that siblings can play and have fun together.
Another option that’s very beneficial for siblings of children with disabilities is to take them to associations where they can meet other children in the same situation. That way, they can share their feelings and hear the experiences of others. The purpose behind these encounters is to:
- Reduce feelings of loneliness, isolation and difference
- Encourage the expression of feelings and experiences
- Promote personal growth
- Give them the opportunity to exchange information with other children who have siblings with disabilities
- Improve their understanding of what disability means
Therefore, having a sibling with a disability shouldn’t be seen as something negative, but rather as an enriching and exceptional opportunity.
“The challenges in our lives are there to strengthen our convictions. They are not there to run us over.”