Impact of Disabilities on Siblings (page 2)
Even in the most functional and healthy family, there are emotional overlays for siblings. However, siblings of children with disabilities tend to react in unique ways related to the special dynamics created in the family around the child's disability. The range of emotional feelings is similar to that reported for parents (Mcloughlin, 1993), but is different because of the reasons and sources of the feelings. Also, siblings are very dependent upon the parents to determine how the feelings and reactions will be dealt with and resolved.
There have been many reports of positive and negative outcomes to being raised with a child who has a disability. Grossman's (1972) interviews and more recent ones (Vine, 1982) provide testimony that siblings develop greater empathy and understanding for people with disabilities. They become more tolerant and patient with others and learn how to be helpful to others. Siblings become more mature and responsible as well as develop pride in their brother's or sister's accomplishments (Powell & Ogle, 1985). That pride has to be related to the obvious contribution they make to the cognitive and social development of the child who has a disability through their play, caretaking, reinforcement, and general communication and interaction. As a younger sister of a person with cerebral palsy said:
I have a different outlook on life than many other people my age. I understand that you can't take anything for granted. And you have to be able to look at the positives, where the balance falls. With Jennifer; there are negatives, but there's so much more that's good.
I'm very involved now with activities for persons with mental retardation. Sometimes I get upset at some of the nonhandicapped people who work with me and seem to be involved as some kind of an ego trip ... like, 'Look at me and what a nice person I am for helping out these poor helpless people.' I feel like I understand so much more about persons with handicaps and how they feel trying to overcome so many frustrations. We're proud of what Jennifer can do. (PACER Center; 1987, p. 19)
Without well informed parents and a functional family, siblings run the risk of dealing with their natural feelings in an unhealthy fashion. As a result they may develop inappropriate behaviors and long-lasting emotional problems related to the experience. Some siblings have reported the need for counseling in later life to deal with issues related to having a brother or sister who has a disability (Cleveland & Miller, 1977; Vine, 1982).
Siblings may feel a myriad of feelings including resentment, jealousy, guilt, grief, fear, shame, embarrassment, and rejection. None of these feelings are bad but they may arise from a misunderstanding of the situation and a misinterpretation of parental behavior. However, all too often, parents do not assist siblings in dealing with these feelings nor help resolve them satisfactorily.
The resentment and jealousy stems from the extra attention parents and others give the child who has a disability. This translates into less quality time with their parents, a reality faced by this parent:
It was difficult or impossible at the time to see the situations in which the siblings were being slighted. The slights were not intentional and there was no lack of love. When Marianne and her older sister, Patricia, were four and five years old, respectively, I enrolled them in dance class. This was one of the first realizations I had as a parent that they were not getting as much time, energy, and effort as their little sister with a disability. After that, I can recall making a conscious effort to change things. I remember how important it became that their costumes for the dance recitals were all that they should be. I remember sitting the children down and saying, Jane takes more of Mommy's time and energy. It isn't that I love her more; it is just that she needs more. You see, she needs more car rides for her doctor visits and evaluations, and more time for her programs. So it ends up that she gets more of my time. (Horne et al., 1988, p. 9)
Also, siblings may resent the special concessions made to the child who has a disability in terms of rules and regulations. It may become difficult for the sibling to accept that family schedules and other aspects of family life are structured around the needs of the child who has a disability such as scheduling therapy or tutoring. They may not be able to have certain clothes, music, vacations, and other possessions because family resources are devoted to the child with a disability.
Most of all, siblings are often expected to help out with their brother or sister and that demand may become burdensome, especially if they have not been taught how to communicate, play, and assist the child with a disability. Their self-concept may be damaged if they are regularly thrust into situations in which they do not feel successful. There is a possibility that they could harm the child with a disability if they do not feed, move, or otherwise care for him or her properly. Without adequate training in behavior management, they may reinforce "learned helplessness," that is, the sibling does everything for the child who has a disability and reinforces the belief that they cannot do anything for themselves.
As a result of being treated this way, siblings may feel rejected and develop a low self-esteem unless they have a strong support system. This feeling can be intensified by a lack of knowledge about their brother's or sister's condition and how they are expected to behave. Friends may ask questions that they cannot answer accurately or comfortably. They may also become fearful of developing the condition, catch it, or pass it on to their own children some day. As this sister of a child who has mental retardation said:
When I was young I used to get pretty good grades, but I went through a very painful period wondering when my grades would change and I would "grow retarded" like my sister. I never talked with anyone about those fears. Initially, I was afraid to talk about this because I dreaded the answer. Later, when I understood what retardation was, I felt guilty that I had such thoughts. (Horne et al., 1988, p. 7)
There can be losses associated with having a sister or brother with a disability. Parents may expect siblings to take care of the child with a disability a great deal and to assume surrogate parent roles for which they are ill-equipped. Siblings may lose elements of their childhood. They may also lose their playmates who do not want to be around the child with a disability. At school and in the community they may have to confront people who are being abusive to the child with a disability.
Without suitable guidance and support, siblings may react negatively to these demands and pressures. They may start acting out to get attention or withdraw as a form of protection. Drugs, alcohol, sex, and other diversions are possible outlets for their frustration. They may overidentify with the child who has a disability and assume a parental role long before they have the knowledge or skills.
Impact of a Sibling on the Child Who Has a Disability
It is important to realize that while the child who has a disability is affecting the sibling, the reverse is also happening for better or worse. Siblings can model appropriate language, motor, social, and other skills for the child with a disability. They are wonderful playmates and can provide for many enjoyable experiences. They are invaluable assistants in performing the daily chores of life under the unique restrictions associated with the exceptional condition such as wheelchairs, hearing aids, and so forth.
On the other hand, if siblings do not choose to interact with their brother or sister who has a disability, the child's self-concept may be adversely affected. Without the stimulation and encouragement offered by siblings, the child with a disability may not develop as well or as quickly. If siblings are difficult children themselves, parents may have less time to devote to meeting the needs of the child with a disability.
© ______ 1994, Merrill, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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