Typically developing children need to feel that they matter as much as their siblings with disability. Sometimes they need support to cope with their feelings. They also need to spend time with you and find ways to connect with people outside the family.
Supporting your typically developing child
Whatever your typically developing children feel about their sibling with disability, they also need to feel that they’re just as important to you – that you care about them and what they’re going through.
Talking about feelings with your typically developing child
When you encourage your child to share her thoughts and feelings, and when you listen without judgment or blame, you send that message that it’s OK for your child to feel the way she does. For example, ‘I understand you feel sad when Siti pulls your hair’.
Your child might ask questions like, ‘Did I cause it?’, ‘Will it go away?’ or ‘Will I catch it?’. It’s best to answer your child’s questions as honestly as possible, in language he can understand. It’s also good to let your child know what’s likely to happen to his sibling, while being positive and realistic. For example, ‘Mei Xuan has cerebral palsy. For Mei Xuan, that means that the muscles in her legs don’t work properly. She needs to use a wheelchair right now, but she’s having physiotherapy to help her legs work better’.
You could also talk with your child about how she thinks her brother or sister with disability might think, feel and behave. This can help your child understand how her sibling with disability sees the world. For example, ‘I know Jun Jie doesn’t use words, but he loves it when you play hide-and-seek with him’.
Talking about your own feelings
When you try to put your own thoughts and feelings into words – comfortable and uncomfortable feelings – you set a good example for all your children. It’s OK to show your children that you have lots of different feelings about the situation too.
For example, ‘Chen Kuo, I felt happy when you helped your brother put on his hat’. Or ‘Khalisah has fallen over and hurt herself. I feel sad about that’.
Spending time with your typically developing child
Juggling the demands and needs of all family members can be a challenge.
Your typically developing child might notice if you’re spending more time with his sibling – for example, at professional appointments. Although you can’t help this, you can talk to your child about his feelings. You might say, ‘Jun Jie, I’ve been at the doctors with Kai Li a lot this week. I wonder whether you’re feeling a bit frustrated about that?’
You can get your child to choose some activities that you can do together. For example, ‘Yong Quan, I’m looking forward to spending time with you after school today. I thought we could do some drawing. Or is there something you really want to do?’
You can help your typically developing child build self-confidence by talking with her about what she’s good at and what she enjoys doing. This will help your child feel like she matters and is an important part of the family, even when her sibling needs extra attention.
Each day, you and your typically developing child will probably come across tricky experiences and emotions. Shared problem-solving is a good way to work through them.
First it’s important to recognise your child’s emotions before you try to solve problems. For example, you might see that he’s getting angry about something that his sibling is doing. You could say, ‘Kumar, it looks like you’re angry that Selvi won’t turn off her favourite show on the TV. It’s OK to feel angry’.
Pause for a moment to give your child time to calm down. Then you can work on the problem together.
Depending on how old your child is, she might need more or less help to understand her feelings, calm down and come up with solutions. Older children and teenagers can probably solve problems on their own.
Celebrating your typically developing children’s relationship with their sibling
When you look out for the things your child enjoys doing with his brother or sister with disability, you can help your child focus on the positives.
For example, you might notice that your children smile and laugh when they play cars together. You could say, ‘Rahman, you’re smiling while you play cars with your brother. It looks like that makes you happy’.
Helping your typically developing child connect with others
Feeling connected to people within and outside the family is important for all children.
For your typically developing child, this can happen through playdates with other children, both those with and without siblings with disability. You could also help your typically developing child connect with others through team sports, extracurricular activities, or church and community organisations.
Peer support groups for siblings might also help your child better understand disability, make more friends, get new ideas for handling tricky situations and feel OK about herself and her feelings. These groups might operate through disability services or associations.
Talking about other people’s reactions
You might feel worried about other people’s reactions to your child’s disability, especially how these reactions might affect your typically developing child.
You can talk with your child about how other people might react to his brother or sister and how that might make him feel. Let your child know it’s OK to feel sad if people say hurtful things. It might help him to have a few things that he can say back. For example, ‘Faiz’s brain just works differently from yours and mine’.
It’s easy to get caught up in looking after your children’s needs, but looking after yourself is important too. That’s because being fit, well and happy keeps you in good shape for looking after other people.
Where to get support for siblings of children with disability
Although siblings of children with disability are generally well adjusted, all children are different. Some children might find it harder than others and might need extra support.
As a parent, you’re the best judge of whether your child needs more support. It’s a good idea to ask for support if you notice that your typically developing child is:
sleeping more or less than usual
eating more or less than usual
being more irritable
showing less interest in things she used to enjoy
avoiding or being aggressive towards her sibling with disability
having trouble with schoolwork
not wanting to spend time with friends
behaving in an unusual way – for example, pretending to have a disability as well.
The professionals supporting you and your family might be able to provide some helpful advice. Alternatively, if you’re worried about any of your children, it might help if you and your child talk with a psychologist or counsellor.
A sibling support group might help your typically developing children cope and give them a chance to meet other children in similar circumstances.
Video: Children with disability: helping siblings
In this video, parents and siblings of children with disability share their experience on how the disability has impacted their lives, and the adjustments they have to make.