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Presenter: Vicki M. Delaski, MS, LSW

Vicki is the mother of a son with autism and a daughter from whom she has learned so much about sibling issues. She supplied the following article in which she covers the key points of sibling issues. This is not a summary of the speech she gave at the Symposium, but it covers the same issues.

To understand issues that may arise between siblings and the brothers or sisters with disabilities, we must first look at sibling relationships in general. Our siblings know us better and longer than anyone else we will ever know. Our parents will know us about 40 to 60 years, and we won't share everything with them. As a matter of fact, if you're like me, there will be quite a few things they will never know, or you would still get a spanking.

Sibling relationships, on the other hand, can last up to 80 years. Our siblings are the people we experiment on with our new found talents (like lying, and the left jab or karate kick we saw on TV last night, OR our first batch of cookies, and the discovery of makeup). We laugh, we cry, we fight, we celebrate, we mourn, and we share our deepest thoughts, feelings, secrets and fears with our siblings because of the bond that is there from the beginning. They are our first social network, and we learn how to interact with others through our interaction with them.

Do we always get along with our siblings? No way! Do we always love them? Yes. Do we always know that we love them, or they love us; or are there times in our relationship that we are sure we hate them or they hate us? Do our siblings embarrass us or we them? The answer to all these questions is generally - yes! Siblings and our family are the foundation on which we build our self-concept and our people skills. They are the gauge by which we measure our successes and our failures.

Now let's talk about the relationship between siblings and their brothers or sisters with disabilities. The relationship and all the emotions are the same with one difference. The disability has a way of magnifying all emotions, especially guilt at feeling any negative emotion like embarrassment, anger, jealousy and resentment. The research states that about half the siblings feel that having a sibling with a disability was the worst thing to happen to them, and half feel it was the best. So, how, you might be asking yourself, do I know if there is a problem, and how do I solve it? Each child and situation is different, so there is no one way to tell if a problem exists.

Some identifiable warning signs are listed below.

  • Depression: change in sleeping or eating habits, a sense of helplessness or hopelessness, continued irritability, has a difficult time concentrating or making decisions, may withdraw from social situations, doesn't seem to have any fun any more, and is negative about themselves or talks about hurting themselves.
  • Anxiety: worries a lot, an increase in energy level without purpose, cries easily when frustrated, problems sleeping, worry about the health of family members, may have lots of headaches or stomachaches, and may be a perfectionist.

If you notice several of these that last two weeks or longer, you should discuss it with your pediatrician or a mental health professional.

Each child is an individual and will display signs of stress, confusion, embarrassment, jealousy, resentment, anger, loneliness, guilt and fear in a different way. Tom may become verbally and/or physically aggressive if someone teases him about his brother, but Ann may become introverted and shy. When there is a crisis at home, grades may go down and bad behavior may go up. Watch, listen, ask questions, talk to them, their teachers and their friends. Generally be involved and show an interest in their lives, so it will be easier for them to come to talk to you about their feelings and any issues or questions.

This brings up the question of how much to tell their teachers about the sibling with the disability. If there is a crisis, and the teacher is not aware of issues in the family, they cannot help you watch for symptoms that the student is having a problem. I can't stress enough the importance of keeping teachers informed and using them as resources.

Now, let's say you think there might be a problem. We all want to believe that we are the parent, and that our children will come to us if they have a problem or question. However, many children don' t know what to ask or how to ask it. They may feel that if they ask, it will make their parents feel bad, angry, disappointed or sad. The one thing they don' t want to do is add to the problem or situation.

The key to improving any relationship is communication. The best way to show that it is okay to talk about feelings is to model that behavior. Children may not always do as we say, but will generally do what they see us do. Let them know that negative feelings are not bad but are normal. Feelings are not good or bad - they are just feelings and we don' t have a lot of control over them. We can only control how we react to them.

Be open and honest. Spend special time with each child. Remember fair in the eyes of a child is much different than fair by adult standards. Evaluate the expectations you have of each child, and don' t forget to let them just be kids once in awhile.

Siblings need to talk about their feelings in a safe environment. That environment is viewed as safe using their eyes not ours. This means that it may not be at home or with friends, but with peers who are going through the same thing. Check with agencies in your area to see if there are any sibling support groups or workshops you and the child can visit. If not, look into starting one.

RESOURCES:

Sibling Information Network
Department of Educational Psychology
Box U-64 The University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT 06268 (203) 486-4034

Powell, T.H. & Gallagher, P.A. Brothers and Sisters: A Special Part of Exceptional Families. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc., 1993

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