Special Needs of Siblings
Siblings need a variety of things to ensure a positive experience with a brother or sister who has a disability. The most prominent ones are: mature, informed parents; information, skills, and support groups; an opportunity to grow and develop as an individual; positive involvement in the program for the child with a disability; planning for the future of the child with a disability and clarification of the sibling's role; and a close, meaningful relationship with the child who has a disability.
Mature, Informed Parents
Siblings need parents who can be positive role models and who can make them feel loved and cared for. They need to feel they have their own place in the family and are not an afterthought. Parents need to make a conscious effort to include them when planning family events and take the sibling's needs into account. Siblings need to know that they are not responsible for their brother or sister who has a disability and should feel free to decline to care for them or to be involved if they wish (Turnbull & Turnbull, 1990).
Parents who take care of their own needs model a valuable lesson to siblings. Also they need to explain stresses and tensions in the family so that siblings know the sources of them and how to deal with them. Siblings may be confused by parents' changing reactions to the child with a disability as they try to adjust to different issues. Sibling needs can be met as demonstrated by 90 siblings of adults who are mentally retarded, most of whom reported that their adult life was not adversely affected by their sibling because of a positive adaptation to the sibling, supportive parents, and coping strategies (Cleveland & Miller, 1977).
What is especially difficult for siblings is how they fit into the family in relationship to the child who has a disability. Parents may treat that child differently and make certain allowances for him or her. Siblings notice this and may wonder about how fair that is. Parents need to explain special rules and arrangements for the child with a disability and help the sibling put them into perspective so they do not feel cheated or overlooked. See Box 4-1 for questions siblings may need to have answered about parenting of children who have disabilities and issues of equity. As a sister of an older person with mental retardation explains:
One person's disability can change almost everything about a family. 1 think families have to talk about it and acknowledge what's occurring.
Also, I think parents will have to create communication opportunities between themselves and their children. Parents will probably have to ask some leading questions, too, because kids won't initiate telling their folks about some of the bad things they feel. Their feelings can include a lot of guilt and shame—not the kind of things that children feel very proud of themselves for feeling. But I think its important that the emotions be brought into the open and discussed. (PACER Center, 1987, pp. 30-31)
Box 4-1 · Questions Siblings Have for Parents
Will you help me understand more about the exceptionality? What does it really mean?
Will you share with me your feelings/strategies regarding my brother or sister?
Will I have the same problems as my brother or sister?
How do I explain the exceptionality to my friends?
Why is so much time given to my sibling?
Why do you have different expectations for me? Is it fair?
What is my responsibility? Why? Is it fair?
What is the best way to communicate with my sibling?
How do I deal with unacceptable behavior?
How do I deal with my roller coaster emotions-showing love and understanding at times and shame, fear, hatred, jealousy, etc. at other times?
Will I be punished for these feelings?
Why do I feel guilty when I am successful in school?
What will happen in the future?
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