Supporting siblings of disabled children

by Monica McCaffrey. Siblings of disabled children require time, attention and support to help them adjust to their brother or sister’s special needs.

Boy being held outdoors

Introduction

Disability affects the whole family. Siblings need attention from their parents, they need help to understand the disability, and they need to be included in the things that their disabled brother or sister might be doing.

They also need help with the feelings. If their needs are overlooked, siblings may become clingy, have difficult behaviour, or feel resentful of their disabled brother or sister.

Extra information

There are some important things that parents can do to support siblings from a young age.

Giving siblings attention

Parents of children with disabilities already have a lot of to do - sometimes without much sleep or support. Focusing their attention on their siblings too may seem like a task they just don’t have time for. However, giving attention doesn’t have to take lots of time. It is better to have a parent’s full attention for a short amount of time, than a lot of time with many distractions.

Why it’s important to give siblings attention:

  • It shows siblings that you love them and helps them feel that they matter too - e.g. a sibling will feel loved when they find a nice note from you in their school lunchbox.
  • It helps to reduce jealousy of their disabled brother or sister when siblings get one-to-one time with you - e.g. a sibling having 15 minutes each day to play a ball game with you.
  • It helps siblings develop good behaviour when you give them attention for doing the right thing - e.g. when your sibling child is playing well with another child, give a hug or say ‘That’s a lovely game’.

Talking to siblings about disability

Many parents put off telling siblings about their brother or sister’s disability. They often worry that telling a sibling will be too upsetting or may feel that children don’t need to know until they’re older. However, just like parents, siblings need to know what is happening to help them cope better.

Why it’s important to tell siblings about the disability

  • It helps siblings understand why things are different with their brother or sister - e.g. a sibling can understand that their brother or sister gets more attention from a parent because they need more help, and not because the parent loves the disabled child more.
  • It helps improve the relationship between siblings and their disabled brothers and sisters - e.g. a sibling whose brother or sister has difficultly with playing can understand that this is because of the disability, and not because their brother or sister doesn’t like them.
  • If parents don’t tell siblings about the disability the effect on siblings is usually worse than if they had been told. They may hear things from others or read things on the internet which may not be correct. They may make up their own version of what is happening, which may be worse than the reality. When they find out that you have kept the information from them, they may feel angry and mistrustful of you.

How to tell siblings about the disability

  • Start early - tell your sibling child at the time of diagnosis.
  • Answer questions as they come up.
  • Be open and honest - this helps your sibling child to trust you.
  • Keep siblings up to date if things change. They will also need more detailed information as they get older.

Including siblings in what is happening with their brother or sister

Children like to be involved in things that the other children in the family are doing. Young siblings often see things like physiotherapy or speech and language therapy as fun, especially if there are new toys or interesting equipment around. They like to know about the places their disabled brothers and sisters go, and meet the people who support them. They also want to know things like who will look after them if a parent has to stay in hospital with their disabled brother or sister.

Why it’s important to include siblings

  • It helps to reduce jealousy if siblings are included in some way in their brother or sister’s treatments or therapies - eg a sibling won’t feel left out if invited to join in for part of a physiotherapy session.
  • It helps siblings feel included if they have a say in what will help them at difficult times - eg making plans with a sibling for coping with a brother or sister’s hospital stay.
  • It helps siblings to understand more about why their brother or sister needs extra attention and help - eg a sibling can learn a lot from being included in a hospital appointment and having things explained by a consultant.

Supporting siblings with their feelings

Siblings experience a range of feelings living with a disabled brother or sister. Some of these can be difficult for siblings, but often they don’t talk about them. They may feel guilty about being angry with their disabled brother or sister or not feel it is okay for them to have negative feelings.

Why it’s important to support siblings with their feelings

  • It gives siblings permission to have negative feelings about their brother or sister which are a natural part of all sibling relationships - e.g. letting a sibling know that it is normal to feel annoyed if their disabled brother or sister breaks a toy.
  • It helps siblings communicate their feelings through words rather than through behavior - eg a sibling can say they are jealous rather than hit another child to get your attention.
  • It helps siblings to feel less isolated with their problems - eg a sibling may be worried about their brother or sister if they need hospital treatment.

How to support siblings with their feelings

  • Name the feelings you see. It helps children to have their feelings acknowledged so when you can see they are feeling jealous or angry let them know this - eg ‘I can see it makes you jealous when I spend time with your brother’ or ‘You’re feeling angry with your sister now, is there anything I can do to help?’.
  • Talk with your sibling child about the good things about having a disabled brother or sister, and about the things that are difficult too.
  • Make a ‘worry box’ with your sibling child so they can write down or draw their worries and place them in the box. These are for you to read and talk about later. This is particularly helpful if children struggle to talk about difficult feelings or if they want to talk to you at a busy time. Writing their worries down and putting them in the worry box ensures they are acknowledged and not forgotten.

How CBeebies can help

Why not have some fun doing a CBeebies ‘Make & Colour’ activity together? There are hundreds to choose from – colouring-in sheets to print out, recipes to try and lots of exciting creative makes to have a go at. Take your pick!

Young siblings can miss out on spending time doing craft activities with their parents. The ‘Make & Colour’ activities are a great way for you to give your sibling child your attention and encourage them to be creative.

How to make a magic moment

Use an activity jar with young siblings.

Help your sibling child write or draw fun activities on small pieces of paper. They need to be activities that last for only 10 minutes and for you and your child to do together. Put them in a small jar with a lid. When you have a 10 minute space, ask your child to choose an activity from the jar and do it together.

Print this article

Want more fun?

See all fun activities

Top tips

  • Spend some time each day doing something fun with your sibling child. Ask other people to help you make time to do this.Make a scrapbook with your sibling child about their family that includes information about the disability.Teach your sibling child and your disabled child how to play together for a few minutes at a time, such as rolling a ball to each other.Ask a therapist to include your sibling child in a therapy session (if your child would like this).Do an activity to help your sibling child learn the names for different feelings.

Expert opinion

By supporting siblings from a young age, parents can help make the experience of growing up with a disabled brother or sister a positive one. It also helps siblings cope better with any difficult issues that come up as they get older.

Monica McCaffrey, Director of Sibs (UK charity for siblings of disabled people)

Answers from the web

Elsewhere on the web

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.