Many families with children suffering from disabilities are often faced with the problem of dealing with sibling issues about the same. In the past few decades, most of the treatment philosophies employed in handling disability have shifted from the traditional medical approach to a more comprehensive therapeutic approach (Dyke, Mulroy, & Leonard, 2009, p. 23). Treatment involves the treatment of disability and its antecedents through the inclusion of the family (this is the basis through which this study will analyze sibling relationships between non-disabled and disabled siblings).
Sibling relationships are very critical in the functioning of most families because they are often very essential to the cohesiveness of any family unit. Sibling relationships are also very essential in the developmental stages of disabled children because they make up the first attempt in the development of social relationship networks (Powell & Ogle, 1985). Roeyers and Buysse (2003, p. 193) reiterate that “Siblings make it possible to share, to express feelings and to experience friendship, loyalty, rivalry, and support”.
Indeed, many siblings are often playmates in the developmental stages of their childhood, but as they grow up, they take up new roles in the family, and even in the way they relate to each other. Disability is one of the issues that normally affect this kind of relationship. In other words, many children find the task of adjusting to siblings with disabilities quite challenging, but many still rise to the challenge and adapt well. With regards to this concern, Crnic & Leconte (1986) note that:
“Siblings may, over the years, be many things to each other — teacher, friend, companion, follower, protector, enemy, competitor, confidant, a 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. 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” (pp. 75-76).
In adjusting to siblings with a disability, many resources are needed; some of them are financial, psychological, emotional, time-related and attention-related (Pattnaik, 2004, p. 46). These resources are especially important to families faced with disability challenges because such challenges if not well handled, may affect the developmental process of both children (non-disabled and disabled children).
Many researchers have affirmed that the self-esteem development of both categories of children is one functional developmental area that is most affected (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1994). Considering the importance of this issue in the attempt to understand the underlying issues in sibling relationships (between non-disabled and disabled children); this study will provide a comprehensive summary of research articles about parent-professional communication strategies and a reaction to their observations. Conversely, the study will also revolve around issues regarding families and para-professionals on the same.
The realization that a child is disabled is often a stress factor for most families. The National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (1994), notes that this kind of situation can cause increased anxiety and tension among family members. It should be further observed that siblings with disabilities are also affected by family stress factors such as increased frustrations of not being understood; increased levels of discontent for being socially isolated and irritation brought about by often being reminded to do basic things.
Research studies were done by the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights Center, Inc. (cited in National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1994) note that; parents need to be aware that siblings of disabled children can develop a tendency to feel jealous of the extra attention disabled children get as a result of their condition. This normally results in a strain of relationships between the siblings.
Gerber (1990, p. 236) notes that some of the most commonly identified stress factors among most families with disabled siblings include a strain on financial resources (which need to be availed for taking care of the disabled children) and high expectations on non-disabled siblings to openly embrace disability as a “normal” thing. From this observation, he notes that parents should tackle this problem as their primary concern in diffusing family tensions that also affect the relationships between disabled and nondisabled siblings.
Fishbein (2002, p. 237) notes that the tensions between disabled and nondisabled siblings arise from the fact that non-disabled siblings only concentrate on the preferential care disabled siblings get. He further explains that experts often observe that it is important for parents to be impartial to the disabled and non-disabled children. Double standards are a key cause of conflicts among the disabled and non- disabled children.
Featherstone (1980) notes that professionals and parents need to understand that siblings of disabled children have limited life experiences to help them deal with situations where they have to tolerate siblings with disabilities. Extensively, he points out the fact that the tasks of making non-disabled children understand how to deal with a disability are not to be solely undertaken by parents and professionals; but rather a task to be carried out by the society as well.
Binkard (1987, p.5) affirms that the inclusion of family in solving sibling relationships among disabled and nondisabled siblings is important because experts have observed that the process of understanding disability is not usually within the grasp of children. From his research studies on sibling relationships, he, therefore, notes that families should come in to facilitate proper interaction between disabled and nondisabled siblings
Lashley (2005, p. 176) warns that there are cases where non-disabled siblings often feel obligated to make up for the shortcomings of disabled siblings. In such cases, the nondisabled sibling may feel overly empathic to the disabled sibling. These are extreme cases which affect sibling relationships between disabled and non-disabled siblings
Hames (2005, p. 3) notes that cases where non-disabled siblings relate well with disabled siblings often lead to the development of positive personality traits such as tolerance and empathy among the non-disabled sibling because he or she develops a deep level of understanding regarding disability as a condition.
McKeever (1983, p. 34) says that it is important for professionals to supply non-disabled siblings and their parents with endless information about disability so that they can bridge the rift between disabled and nondisabled sibling relationships. In other words, he reiterates that professionals need to understand that there is a wide gap between what non-disabled siblings do and what they know about disability.
Pilowsky (2004, p. 855) parts ways with proponents of the theory that sibling relationships are irreparable if family support groups are not engaged because he explains that other research studies are done to explore the effects of autism in sibling relationships expose the fact that siblings can easily adjust to each other after taking medication. He further asserts that DSM-IV diagnosis is one method that depicts good results.
In reaction to the summary of the first article, the siblings ought to be told why sibling tensions exist. It is essential to note that having a high expectation of non-disabled siblings to cope with disabled siblings normally increases the level of anxiety in their relationships. However, most of the time, such children do not voice such concerns. Many parents also do not normally acknowledge that such a problem exists and so they act like there is no problem within the family. It is therefore important for parents to maintain a relaxed atmosphere in the family and not have unrealistic expectations on their children
In reaction to the observations on the second article, parents should exercise constraint and refrain from victimizing their children for being jealous; instead, they should sit the children down and explain to them the nature of the disability, its implications and what it means for the family. This is one advantage researchers have observed when comparing siblings interacting with a disabled family member and those who do not (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1994).
Families need to be wary of the financial implications of having a disabled child brings. However, more importantly, even though siblings may need extra financial care, parents should try to treat non-disabled siblings in a considerate way so that they don’t feel left out.
Parents should treat both disabled and non-disabled siblings in the same way so that they avoid sibling conflicts. Disabled children are sensitive and thus need more parental attention, something that may cause the non-disabled siblings to feel neglected.
In reaction to the assertions made by Featherstone (1980) about the inclusion of family support groups in improving sibling relationships; Shalev (2007, p. 537) affirms that family support groups are proposed as a useful tool to help disabled siblings better cope with their situation (after she established that a lack of family support may lead to the development of autism as another complication to affect the child’s social interaction capabilities). These developments have also received appraisals from many experts as explained by the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (1994).
Including community support groups in diffusing sibling tensions between disabled and non-disabled siblings is an effective strategy and that is why the approach is embraced by some schools and hospitals which have designed programs to help disabled children live with their conditions (but with the inclusion of siblings from the beginning). Such positive programs have also been noted to accommodate family support groups to share information and offer mutual support to disabled children.
Positive relations between disabled and non-disabled siblings often lead the non-disabled siblings to be more tolerant of disability than the average person. In this light, it should, therefore, be observed that sibling relationships in this context can make the children better people if they are taught how to adapt well to their disabled siblings.
The development of positive personality traits among non-disabled siblings who positively relate with their disabled siblings is a possible extension to the observations noted in the seventh article where tolerance is observed among non-disabled siblings who express the same sentiments towards their disabled siblings. This is another advantage that should be perceived as the outcome of encouraging positive sibling relationships.
The endless supply of information to siblings and parents who have to deal with disabled people is a positive move in not only helping positive sibling relationships, among disabled and non-disabled siblings but also in parent-child relationships. This is important because parents and non-disabled siblings will be aware of what they need to do to bridge their actions to reflect a good relationship with the disabled child or sibling.
In affirmation of the above assertions, the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (1994) notes that it is important for educationists to be wary of the increased attention disabled children require because they hold an influential position in enabling non-disabled siblings tolerate disabled siblings. The National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (1994) has raised this awareness among many educationists by reiterating that:
“During the school years, especially in the early years, teachers can help to promote sibling awareness and interaction by providing opportunities for siblings to learn about disabilities. For example, conducting a “sibling day” or a sibling workshop can be an excellent way of introducing siblings to a variety of disabilities. A “sibling day” can be held on a school day or a weekend” (p, 34).
In such situations, activities to be undertaken by educationists may include simulation games, sign language instructions, and encouraging the sharing of positive stories regarding the interaction between siblings of disabled children and non-disabled children (so that non-disabled sibling can develop a positive attitude of dealing with their disabled siblings).
The use of medication in treating sibling relationships between disabled and non-disabled siblings should be perceived as the last resort after all therapeutic approaches have failed. This is because the positive sibling relationships observed as a result of medication may be excessively dependant on medication, thereby possibly causing severe drawbacks if not well implemented.
This study identifies that parents and professionals can equally make positive contributions to enable non-disabled siblings to better understand how to deal with their disabled siblings. In the same regard, this study also identifies strategies through which disabled children can better cope with their situation. Comprehensively, we realize that many researchers advocate for parents to treat their children equally, regardless of their disability status, and with regards to professionals, researchers point out the usefulness of providing non-disabled children with an endless supply of information to help them better deal with their disabled siblings. These strategies have been identified to help siblings of children with disabilities better cope with their disabled siblings.
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