"I have a disabled sister": siblings of disabled children

boy kissing baby belly. (picture: Norbert Roemer/pixelio.de)
A new sibling is always a challenge for the older child. (picture: Norbert Roemer/pixelio.de)

Siblings of disabled children are especially challenged in daily live. The often very difficult situation within the family poses risks for the healthy child - but also chances.

Relationships of siblings are the most durable ones of all but they are also difficult in certain ways and at different stages of life. Where closeness, trust and relationship are, there can also be rivalry, jealousy, or even hostility.

Assume responsibility

Older siblings are often encouraged from their parents to take over the role of an idol for the younger ones. Often, the older siblings do that anyway, although many of them feel neglected after the birth of a second or third child.

Similar mechanisms occur with siblings of a child with a handicap. Non-disabled siblings are expected to show a greater amount of consideration, reason and autonomy. They shall give support and accompany  to the disabled brother or sister.

Several studies, for example one by Dr. Waltraud Hackenberg, have already demonstrated 20 years ago that siblings to chronically ill or disabled children can grow up to socially competent, practical living, self-confident persons. However, there is also a risk that they feel guilty and neglected; have poor social contacts and difficulties at school.

Excessive demand as a major risk

As the main risks for siblings of children with disabilities, Dr. Waltraud Hackenberg names the excessive demands that the children ought to be independent very early; to meet the expectations and not to be a burden for their parents.

Another great danger, Hackenberg sees in the emotional neglect of non-disabled children: "Children mostly behave highly adapted. They do what they are told. They ‘work’ smoothly.” The parents who are themselves burdened and overwhelmed, assume that everything is OK, and do not realise that this behaviour is based on over-conformity. That is why they do not have a closer look to identify problems which their non-disabled children often have and see them too late or even not at all."

The following “rules” can help the parents – with all the worries for their disabled or chronically ill child – that the healthy child do not go short:

  • The children should not be underestimated.
  • Speak and listen to the children.
  • Rivalry between the children can be allowed.
  • Accept help from others.
  • Grant the healthy child a life of its own.

Chances for the healthy siblings

Of course, every child reacts differently to a specific situation and handles it differently. Very much depends on an emotionally positive family climate. But even though the topic seems to be loaded with sorrow, the children do not have to be only overwhelmed – growing up with a disabled child is also a chance. It builds up very often great social skills and sensitivity to other, weaker children. They show a greater confidence in dealing with disability and a positive and open attitude towards people with disabilities.

This increases their confidence and they are more capable of self-criticism. Children with a disabled sibling often come into their personal maturity early because of the higher sense of responsibility; they may have good conflict behaviour skills and a higher frustration tolerance.

Text: P. Gunti
Translation: MPL
picture: pixelio.de