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Understanding Sibling Issues
By: Renata Bursten, Dragonfly Staff


Raising a child with a disability or chronic illness poses many challenges. Some of these challenges focus on the relationship between the siblings in the family. These crucial relationships are examined in this article.



(Information adapted from a fact sheet by...
NICHCY - National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities,Published with permission.)

The birth of a child with a disability or chronic illness, or the discovery that a child has a disability, has a profound effect on a family. Children suddenly must adjust to a brother or sister who, because of their condition, may require a large portion of family time, attention, money, and psychological support. Yet it is an important concern to any family that the nondisabled sibling adjust to the sibling with a disability. It is important because the nondisabled child's reactions to a sibling with a disability can affect the overall adjustment and development of self-esteem in both children.
,In any family, each sibling, and each relationship that siblings have, is unique, important, and special. Brothers and sisters influence each other and play important roles in each other's lives. Indeed, sibling relationships make up a child's first social network and are the basis for his or her interactions with people outside the family (Powell & Ogle, 1985). Brothers and sisters are playmates first; as they mature, they take on new roles with each other. They may, over the years, be many things to each other -- teacher, friend, companion, follower, protector, enemy, competitor, confidant, role model. When this relationship is affected by a sibling's disability or chronic illness, the long-term benefits of the relationship may be altered (Crnic & Leconte, 1986). For example, the child with a disability may have limited opportunities to interact with other children outside the family; thus, social interaction between siblings often takes on increasing importance.
,Each child's personality and temperament play an important role in their response toward a sibling, including one with a disability. Although both positive and negative feelings exist in all sibling relationships, McHale and Gamble (1987) conclude, "...for school-age children and young adolescents, these relationships tend to be more positive than negative in their feeling tone. Furthermore, children with disabled siblings appear to have more positive and fewer negative behavioral interactions than do those with nondisabled siblings..." (p. 141). These positive aspects include higher levels of empathy and altruism, increased tolerance for differences, increased sense of maturity and responsibility, and pride in the sibling's accomplishments (Powell & Ogle, 1985).
,Today, many areas have yet to be explored concerning siblings. Parents and professionals, for instance, need more information about sibling adjustment from the perspective of different family systems (Skrtic, Summers, Brotherson, & Turnbull, 1984). For example, how do different family compositions -- the single parent, adopted children, foster children, and families of different cultures -- affect sibling relationships? Powell and Ogle (1985) summarize the importance of studying siblings when they state: "Siblings have much to share; they have much to teach those who wish to help them. They can guide the actions of parents and professionals so that their needs can best be met." (p. 5).
,Nondisabled Sibling Reactions and the Family Environment

Living with a brother or sister, including one with a disability, can be rewarding, confusing, instructive, and stressful. Siblings of a child with a disabling condition express a range of emotions and responses to that sibling, similar in most ways to the range of emotions experienced toward siblings who have no disability (Powell & Ogle, 1985). Children react toward a sibling with a disability with feelings of love, empathy, pride, guilt, anger, and support; the predominance and prevalence of these reactions have great impact on the levels of stress and coping ability of the sibling with a disability. The positive or negative nature of the relationships between siblings and among family members may be influenced by factors such as these:
- the family's resources;
- the family's lifestyle;
- the family's child-rearing practices;
- the kind and severity of the disability;
- the number of children in the family;
- the age differences between children in the family;
- the other stress-producing conditions that exist in the family;
- the kinds of coping mechanisms and interaction patterns that exist within the family; and,- the kind and quality of the support services available in the community.

Each child's reaction to having a sibling with a disability will vary depending on his or her age and developmental level. The responses and feelings of the nondisabled sibling toward the sibling with a disability are not likely to be static, but rather tend to change over time as the sibling adapts to having a brother or sister with a disability and copes with day-to-day realities. Preschool-aged siblings, for example, may feel confused, afraid, anxious, and angry about a brother or sister's ability or illness. All children are different; the intensity of a child's concerns, needs, and experiences will vary from sibling to sibling, as will a child's reaction to and interpretation of events. The younger the child the more difficult it may be for him or her to understand the situation and to interpret events realistically. Nondisabled siblings may resent the time their parents give to the sibling with a handicap and perceive it as rejection. They may wonder what is wrong with them that their parents love their sister or brother with a disability more. During the early years the nondisabled sibling may mimic the physical or behavioral actions of the child with a disability, or the nondisabled sibling may regress in behavioral development. Later on, he or she may be prone to extremes of behavior such as "acting out" or becoming the "perfect" child.
,Elementary school-aged children may feel embarrassed or ashamed as they recognize differences between their sibling and someone else's brother or sister. They may worry about "catching" or developing the problem, and they may feel guilt because they themselves do not have a disability. They may also feel protective and supportive of their sibling, and this may trigger conflicts with peers.
,Young adults may have future-oriented concerns. They may wonder what will become of their brother or sister with a disability. They may also be concerned about how the people they socialize with, date, and later marry will accept the brother or sister with a disability. Additional issues faced by young adults may include genetic counseling when planning their own families, and coping with anxiety about future responsibilities for the brother or sister with a disability or illness.
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