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The bond: Siblings of children with special needs
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The bond: Siblings of children with special needs

MetroWest ABLE (Access, Belonging, and Life Enrichment for People and Families with Special Needs) is the community’s network of agencies and community leaders that serve and advocate for individuals with special needs and their families. MetroWest ABLE is making connections within our Jewish community to raise awareness and support meaningful inclusion of people with special needs and their families in every aspect of Jewish life in MetroWest. MetroWest ABLE is funded by the UJA Campaign, the Linda Bunis Haller Foundation, and the Joyce and Leonard Kulick Fund for Special Needs. For more information, call Rebecca Wanatick, community inclusion coordinator at 973-929-3129 or rwanatick@jfedgmw.org or visit www.metrowestABLE.org. 

Siblings share a bond like no other. Siblings are the longest relationships one has in life, one’s first friend and playmate, first tormenter and first advocate. The relationship between siblings can be a very important part of any person’s life. Siblings often share the same family experiences and form a special relationship which can last throughout their lives. 

Children who grow up together in the same family can form a unique bond, regardless of a brother or sister having a disability. In fact, the relationship between siblings and their brother or sister with a disability can be identical to the relationship between any brother and sister. They may be close and remain so into adulthood, or they may never develop a close relationship or grow apart as they get older. It’s important to remember that a lot of factors affect how siblings relate to each other, and not just the fact that one of them has a disability. 

Sometimes, having a brother or sister with a disability in the family does create challenges that other families may not experience. Some of these challenges can directly affect the siblings. Parents are often so focused on helping and caring for the child with special needs that the healthy or typically developing siblings can be ignored. These siblings can feel left out of the family or even invisible. Anger, guilt, worry, love, jealousy, loneliness, embarrassment, and resentment are some of the difficult feelings that siblings of children with special needs may have. 

Because parents can be so focused on the child with special needs and the sibling does not always get the attention he or she needs, they may have to struggle with these difficult feelings on their own. Some children may get the message that their needs are secondary to those of their sibling’s, so they may keep their feelings to themselves. Typically developing children are often expected to succeed and “make up for” the deficits of their siblings, therefore creating unnecessary pressures. 

Fortunately, research on siblings indicates there are many positive aspects in being the sibling of a brother or sister with a disability. It has been found that children in families where a sibling has a disability can become more mature, responsible, self-confident, independent and patient. Children who grow up with a sibling with special health or developmental needs may have more of a chance to develop many good qualities, including:

• patience
• kindness and supportiveness
• acceptance of differences
• compassion and helpfulness
• empathy for others and insight into coping with challenges
• dependability and loyalty that may come from standing up for their brother or sister.

These siblings can also become more altruistic, more sensitive to humanitarian efforts and have a greater sense of closeness to family. Growing up with a sibling who has a disability may instill a greater level of understanding and development in the siblings who are not disabled. 

Often, parents struggle to ensure that the sibling’s needs are met. Here are a few ideas:

• Tune in to the individual needs of your child and help them to express their feelings. Listen to them without judgment and help them to develop empathy for their sister or brother. 
• Have a “Date Night.” Spend alone time with the sibling, taking them to activities they enjoy, playing a game, or even going for a walk.
• Provide appropriate information about their sibling’s condition and answer their questions in an age-appropriate way. 
• Recognize the sibling’s successes and communicate how important they are to you.
• Allow the sibling to be a child and support their efforts to do activities with friends. 
• Be aware of changes in behavior (such as eating or sleeping), or physical symptoms (headaches and stomach aches) that may indicate depression.
• Locate a sibling support group that can allow the child to express their feelings and experience peer support.

MetroWest ABLE and Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ are offering a sibling support group that can help to:

• Normalize the sibling’s experience and help the sibling feel less isolated as they meet other children in a similar situation. 
• Provide a forum to share stories and experiences, both positive and negative, with other children who understand them.
• Provide opportunities for a child to ask questions or express feelings that they may feel is a “burden” to their parents. 
• Offer an opportunity to have fun and enjoy time focused on them.

This sibling support group, for children ages nine to 12, will meet on five Sunday afternoons from Nov. through May. For more information, or to register for the group, please contact Rebecca Wanatick at 973-929-3129 or rwanatick@jfedgmw.org.

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