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What About Brothers and Sisters?

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from Abilities Magazine, Fall, 1994, with permission from the Nova Scotia Association for Community Living:

When someone in a family has special needs, everyone in the family is affected in some way. Parents are often faced with many challenges in trying to provide their child with optimal life experiences. Siblings also have many questions and concerns.

Relationships between sisters and brothers are very special, often lifelong relationships. Most of us can recall and continue to experience many happy and joyful experiences with our brothers and sisters, as well as times of anger, frustration, worry, disappointment and sadness.

Clinicians and researchers have been trying to understand the experience of siblings for some time. Examining the issues which may affect sisters and brothers is complex.

Most children adjust well to having a sibling with a disability, even though there may be extra stress or difficulties within their family. Many older sisters and brothers report that having a sibling with special needs has enriched their lives in a variety of ways. They may feel that their family is close because of this experience. Brothers and sisters often feel that they learned to be more caring and tolerant of other people.

The relationship between someone with a disability and her or his sibling may sometimes be different in some way from what it otherwise would have been.

For example, the relationship may be warm but less intimate, less competitive or less egalitarian.

At times, many sisters and brothers feel that they have insufficient time and attention from parents, too many household or child care responsibilities, and not enough recognition for their own accomplishments. They may have difficulty when their sibling is teased by other children, especially by friends.

Sisters and brothers may be embarrassed by the reaction of strangers. Other children feel guilty and confused when they are angry, resentful or envious of their sibling. It is not uncommon for children to have questions about the specific needs and problems of their sibling. They are likely to feel some apprehension and worry about medical tests, treatments and periods of hospitalization. There may be conflict between parents and children about how much the child with a disability should be protected, or encouraged and challenged. Most children will wonder about their sibling's future and their own responsibilities for the sibling. Nevertheless, most children will not have any significant social or psychological problems because of these worries or concerns.

However, some of sisters and brothers may be more at risk for emotional problems such as depression or excessive anxiety. At present, we do not fully understand why these individuals are at greater risk than other

siblings of children with special needs. The sibling's specific diagnosis, its severity or the disability involved, and the child's age and sex do not seem to affect the likelihood of emotional problems. But increased child care responsibilities for the child with special needs may lead to more conflict between the two children. There are likely to be other factors specific to families themselves which increase the risk of emotional problems for sisters and brothers.

There are many ways in which parents can help brothers and sisters feel that they are also special children:

--Show interest in brothers' and sisters' activities and in their own special accomplishments.

--Keep household and child care responsibilities in proportion to the child's capabilities. It may be helpful to negotiate with the child which responsibilities she or he will have.

--Give each child some individual time.

--Be attentive to children's feelings. It is normal for all brothers and sisters to feel angry sometimes and frustrated with each other; it does not mean that they do not love each other.

--Talk to your child about her or his sibling's special needs, including strengths and weaknesses and how the family can help.

--Be fair about discipline. Sisters and brothers often feel that their sibling with a disability is able to get away with "bad" behaviour.

--Encourage siblings to have time alone with their friends as well as some time which includes the child with a disability. Help all of your children to cope with difficulties they may have with teasing and reactions from


The health care team that provides services to your family may also have special opportunities for siblings. Occupational therapists are concerned about the occupational development of your child and the impact of her or his disability on your family's everyday activities. A sister or brother may want to participate in occupational therapy sessions to learn more about the sibling's special needs. In some settings, occupational therapists and other members of the health care team offer special group programs for siblings with an emphasis on learning and sharing in a fun and supportive environment. In some communities, there may be opportunities for adult siblings to meet each other.

Being a sister or brother of a child with a disability is a special experience. It can teach children a great deal about living with a disability in our society. It can bring out inner resources of compassion, tolerance and responsibility. Parents play vital roles in this process by being supportive to all their children and responding to each as a special child in the family.

(Anita M. Unruh, M.S.W., O.T.(C), is an assistant professor at Dalhousie University's School of Occupational Therapy in Halifax, NS. She has a younger brother with a psychiatric disability. Joanne Gusella, Ph.D., is a psychologist at the Izaak Walton Killam Hospital for Children in Halifax. This article is reprinted with permission from Challenges, the newsletter of the Nova Scotia Association for Community Living.)


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