Sibling Support in Families with Special Needs

 November 3, 2016
Posted by M&LAdmin4

Thursday, November 3, 2016

As parents of individuals with a disability, we know all too well how challenging and time consuming it can be to meet their needs – whether medical, emotional, academic, or financial. It is common for parents to feel overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, and alone. We empathize with these feelings. We can also empathize with how the care of one family member with disabilities can sometimes lead to a lesser share of attention being given to other family members – namely, the siblings of the individual with disabilities.

This blog post is dedicated to these siblings – to their feelings, their emotions, and their needs – and ways in which families can ensure that the (sometimes) lesser share of attention does not mean a lesser share of love.

Recognizing Sibling Stress in a Family with Special Needs

As we discuss the signs of sibling stress, it is important to recognize that each individual is unique, and as such will have his or her own unique (and often contradictory) reactions to the stressors that come along with every special needs journey. Some individuals react in a positive way, viewing their sibling with special needs as an outlet for additional love and care. Others may feel resentful, jealous of the time spent caring for their sibling. There may also be fear about what may happen should they be left responsible for their sibling’s care. Most will probably experience all of these variations along the emotional spectrum.

If the sibling without disability is a young child, it is important to recognize that the signs of sibling stress will be different than that of an older or adult child. The younger the sibling, the harder it may be to recognize and empathize with the special needs journey. Here are some general signs of sibling stress to watch for:

  • Avoidance: Avoids spending time with the family, avoidance of discussing the issue, self-isolation.
  • Behavioural changes: Changes in eating and sleeping habits, changes in recreational activities, personality changes.
  • Physical symptoms: Can include headaches, stomach-aches, recurring illness.
  • Perfectionism
  • Poor self esteem and/or self confidence
  • Separation anxiety

If you notice any of the above signs in your family members without disabilities, it may be time to consult with a medical professional and address the underlying cause.

Helping Siblings Cope

Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire, one-size-fits-all method to ensure that your family member without disabilities is coping with the demands of having a sibling with special needs. Medical intervention, therapy, counselling, sibling support groups or even a frank, heart-to-heart conversation are a few of the different options available to parents in families with special needs.

As well, please see the below tips for helping individuals cope with having siblings with disabilities (as referenced from article 5 Ways to Support Siblings in Special Needs Families):

1.) Talk Openly: Open communication and dialogue about the family member with disability is essential for siblings to fully understand the special needs journey, and help them to understand the behavior and needs of their siblings. This open and honest dialogue will foster empathy and support.

2.) Spread Support: Be sure to support, encourage, and praise the achievements and goals of every sibling in the family, as well as the sibling with special needs. This ensures that every child in the family feels included and cared for.

3.) Set Aside Time for Each Sibling: Similar to spreading support, setting aside time for each sibling can ensure that each child feels valued, loved, and cared for. Consciously setting aside time for each child may keep parents from accidentally focusing all attention and resources on the child with disabilities. Experts say that these special one-on-one times do not necessarily need to be equal in length, but must be meaningful and consistent.

4.) Try to Treat all Children the Same: It may be tempting to give family members without disabilities “free passes” on daily tasks such as chores, homework, behavior, etc. but experts warn that this guilt-motivated parenting style can only lead to more problems in the future. Consistency and the insistence on adherence to responsible behavior is the key to future happiness of all children.

5.) Look at the Positive: Growing up with a sibling with special needs can also come with benefits, according to experts. Siblings and family members of individuals with disabilities grow up with more advanced skill sets, a higher capacity for empathy, advanced social skills and a higher capacity for compassion – all characteristics that will help them succeed both socially and in the workforce. Focus on these positive characteristics in your children as they occur, and work to make your special needs journey a positive experience.

Information and Support – Resources

Sibling Support Project: “Founded in 1990, the Sibling Support Project is the first national program dedicated to the life-long and ever-changing concerns of millions of brothers and sisters of people with special health, developmental, and mental health concerns.” Offers workshops, sibling-to-sibling connections, training, print and online resources.

Great Books if you have a Sibling with Special Needs: This article from contains a list of 10 excellent books for siblings of individuals with disabilities – an excellent mix for the young and old siblings.

Advice from Siblings of Special Needs Kids: This informative and insightful article gets the words directly from the mouths of those affected – siblings of individuals with disabilities. An excellent read from those wishing to gain perspective and a follow up on the above section Helping Siblings Cope, with personal angles.

Sibling Issues: This article, published by the Center for Parent information and Resources, contains a wealth of important information and resources for siblings and family members of individuals with disabilities.

Massachusetts Sibling Support Network: Provides a list of third party support groups for siblings of all ages, from across the US.

Additional Information

Thank you for taking the time to visit our website and read our blog. We hope that it has proved useful information. If you would like to learn more about sibling support, please do not hesitate to contact us! If we cannot provide you with the support you need, we will certainly refer you to an organization (or individual) that can.

If you would like to know more about the work that Integrated Living Opportunities (ILO) does building intentional, integrated, inclusive communities for adults with disabilities, please take a moment to browse our website, read our history and learn about our mission and goals. And don’t hesitate to reach out! We would love to meet you and learn about your unique special needs journey – we are always looking to broaden our networks of support.




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