When a child has additional needs this can have an impact on the whole family. Brothers and sisters can be particularly affected and it’s important for parents not to lose sight of their other children’s needs.
Sadly, the siblings of additional needs children can be teased or bullied at school. They can feel jealous at the amount of attention their brother or sister receives. They may be embarrassed about their brother or sister’s behaviour in public, usually because of the reaction of others. Although there may not be easy answers, there are things we can do to help our children deal with these issues.
Take time to talk
With so much parental attention going to one child, siblings can easily feel overlooked. It’s a good idea to make sure they each have one-to-one time with a parent, even if it can’t be for long. Siblings also need the opportunity to share how they might be feeling. Young children may be more aware than we think of family circumstances and of their siblings’ condition, and they can silently worry. Whilst it may be appropriate to guard our children from certain details, we should consider sharing at least some information with them. They may feel acutely aware that their brother or sister is hurting and, like us, may be feeling frustrated and powerless to ease their suffering. It can be good to let them talk about events from their own point of view e.g. how they felt that day when their brother or sister had to go into hospital. We should try to be honest with our children, and explain simply how and why certain things happen.
Siblings may find themselves having to rapidly grow-up and take responsibility for their brother or sister and assist in their care. Whilst it will be a great help to parents to have this support, it is important to allow them time when they can just be ordinary children and have fun with their peers. It can be helpful to plan this time in advance, perhaps on a family calendar, so that they can look forward to it.
It may be helpful to find out if there is a local ‘Young Carers’ group in the area. This could provide a chance for children in a caring role to have a break and to meet others in similar situations. A number of national charities, such as Barnardo’s, Action for Children and The Children’s Society, run groups for young carers.
Some children may find a great sense of achievement in assisting their brother or sister with learning new skills.
Some children may find a great sense of achievement in assisting their brother or sister with learning new skills. They may even surprise us by finding ways of communicating and understanding each other that had not occurred to the adults involved! It is good to encourage siblings to recognise what their brother or sister can and cannot do, and to celebrate achievements together.
As they get older, some siblings may feel the need to put their own lives on hold. This could mean not wanting to leave home or go to university -as they feel they need to support the family. Such caring young people will be encouraged to know that their parents appreciate their support, but that they are free to pursue their own dreams. Having the assurance that they can be supportive now in different ways (e.g. taking their siblings on holiday occasionally or supporting the family financially) will help them to fly the nest when they are ready.
Many children experience an internal struggle between wanting to fit in with friends and family loyalty. Children tend to be quite open about their opinions and sometimes react in a negative way to the unfamiliar, including to those with additional needs. To protect themselves from this kind of unwanted attention, siblings can appear to act as if they are ashamed of their brother or sister. This, in turn, leads to feelings of guilt for ‘betraying’ their family. Although this behaviour can seem hurtful, parental understanding of what each child is going through, will show our support -rather than adding to their guilt. We should try to remember that this is probably a phase that will not last beyond the teenage years -when the pressure to fit in with peers is at its toughest!
If a child is being bullied because they have a sibling with additional needs, they may be tempted to take out their frustration on someone ‘weaker’. If this happens it is important to deal with it so that they don’t pass on their hurt to others. We can tackle this in the same way we would any other type of bullying, by finding out what is happening and ensuring the cause is addressed.
Siblings may choose not to tell their peers about their family circumstances or be too embarrassed to bring friends home. It may be helpful if we, as the adults, make the first move by inviting their friends to our home or to join in with family activities. When their friends see the family interacting with complete acceptance of each other it can quickly rub-off on them.
Behaviour and time
Sometimes when siblings of an additional needs child feel their parents aren’t coping well, they may become overly protective. They may feel a great pressure to be well-behaved, and are not able to share their own struggles in case this causes further upset. Others react very differently. We can watch out for resentment or jealousy in siblings when our child with additional needs receives more of our time, frequently stays home from school, or seemingly gets to play all day. Another area to keep an eye on is when siblings feel they are losing out on opportunities, like going on holiday or being unable to afford treats because of financial constraints.
Sibling’s behaviour may become more challenging in an effort to get more time with their parents – any attention, even if it is negative, may feel better than none! If siblings are literally fighting for our attention, we need to try to make sure they have time with us as individuals. Focussing on the cause of their frustration and not solely on the resulting behaviour can be helpful. This can be hard when we are exhausted but it is so worthwhile and will provide future happy memories for all our children.
Sometimes siblings can feel they are constantly being told-off whilst their brother or sister with additional needs seems to get away with more. Children possess a great sense of fairness, so it is important to help them understand why we have different boundaries and behaviour expectations for them. It can be helpful to gently explain why their brother or sister needs extra care and attention, and how each child’s condition changes what is acceptable behaviour.
Each of our children needs to know that they are loved and accepted by their parents. We can find out what makes each child feel most loved and spend time with them whenever possible -doing their favourite things. By consciously making time to individually talk to and listen to each child we give them a chance to share their own life struggles and feel less like a ‘sibling’ and more like a valued son or daughter.
For further help:
Sibs – a website specifically for siblings of disabled children which also includes a section for parents: www.sibs.org.uk