When Siblings have Special Health Needs

Abby and Ann came from the same embryo. They look identical from head to toe. Yet, they’ve come to the world to experience very different lives. Although they’ll both compete in races and always win, Abby will succeed on foot while Ann will cross the finish line in a wheelchair.

In any family, each sibling is unique, important and special. So are the relationships they have with each other. Brothers and sisters influence each other and play important roles in each other’s lives. Sibling relationships make up a child’s first social network and are the basis for his or her interactions with people outside the family. Brothers and sisters are playmates first. But, they take on new roles as they get older. Over the years, they may be many things to each other including teacher, friend, companion, follower, protector, enemy, competitor, confidant and role model. This relationship can be powerfully affected by a sibling’s disability or chronic illness though.

Having a child with a disability affects everyone in the family. However, the impact of disability in the family varies considerably from person to person. For many, the experience is a positive, enriching one that teaches them to accept other people as they are. Some siblings become deeply involved in helping parents care for the child with a disability. It is not uncommon for siblings to become ardent protectors and supporters of their brother or sister with special needs or to experience feelings of great joy in watching him or her achieve even the smallest gain in learning or development.

Here’s how Abby feels about growing up with her twin sister Ann who has  cerebral palsy, “Every day Ann teaches me to never give up. She knows she is different, but she does not focus on that. She does not give up, and every time I see her overcome a huge obstacle, I make myself work that much harder. I really don’t know what I would do without Ann. If I had not grown up with her, I would have less understanding, patience and compassion for people. She shows us that anyone can do anything.”

While having a special needs sibling presents challenges, it comes with favorable opportunities as well. Kids who grow up with a sister or brother with special health needs may have more of a chance to develop many good qualities, including:

  • patience
  • kindness and supportiveness
  • acceptance of differences
  • compassion and helpfulness
  • empathy for others and insight into coping with challenges
  • dependability

At the same time many kids may find it difficult coping with the fact that they are siblings of those with special needs. They may have many different and even conflicting feelings. For example, they may feel:

  • worried about their sibling
  • jealous of the attention their brother or sister receives
  • scared that they will lose their sibling
  • angry that no one pays attention to them
  • resentful of having to explain, support, and/or take care of their brother/sister
  • resentful that they are unable to do things or go places because of their sibling
  • embarrassed about their sibling's differences
  • pressure to be or do what their sibling cannot
  • guilty for negative feelings they have toward their sibling or guilty for not having the same problem or being born “normal”

Siblings may also swing back and forth between positive and negative emotions. While Abby loves Ann immensely, she admits that when she was younger sometimes she felt angry that Ann always got “special” treatment for everything. “I just thought it was unfair.”

The reaction and adjustment of siblings to a brother or sister with a disability may also vary depending upon their ages and developmental levels. The younger the non-disabled sibling is, the more difficult it may be for him or her to understand the situation and to interpret events realistically. Younger children may be confused about the nature of the disability, including what caused it. They may feel that they themselves are to blame or may worry about “catching” the disability.

As siblings mature, their understanding of the disability matures as well. But new concerns may emerge. They may worry about the future of their brother or sister, about how their peers will react to their sibling or about whether or not they themselves can pass the disability or disease along to their own children.

Talking with your children about disability is vital for the whole family. It is important for you to take time to talk openly about your child’s disability with your other children, explaining it as best you can in terms that are appropriate to each child’s developmental level. You can help your kids better understand what having a sibling with special needs means to your family, and you can also help your kids figure out constructive and appropriate ways to express their feelings and make sure their needs are met. When parents tune in to the individual needs of each child in the family, they can help ease the difficulties.

If you are concerned about sibling issues, get in touch with resources that can help you open up the lines of communication and address the needs of your non-disabled children. The Internet also offers amazing possibilities for connection sharing and be a great place to start. You may also find there is a support group available to your children, which can provide an excellent outlet for siblings to share their feelings with others in a similar situation.