Siblings of children with disabilities often bear an emotional impact that can be challenging to navigate with their not yet fully matured brains. The myriad of emotions, that are often difficult for adults to grapple with, can be even more bewildering for children in the family, who may perceive disparities in attention and connection to worried, stressed, exhausted but loving parents.

It’s common for a child with increased needs due to disability, mental health, or chronic illness to draw more focus within the family dynamic. Consequently, siblings may find themselves feeling confused, isolated, neglected, or used, lacking the same level of attention and connection they see directed towards their sibling.

For a long time we believed that siblings of children with disabilities solely experienced negative consequences within the family dynamic, however, recent research, including studies by organizations like Siblings Australia, has illuminated some positive outcomes. For instance, the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (2007) discovered that siblings of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibited more developed psychosocial and emotional skills than those with typically developing siblings. These children demonstrated higher levels of empathy, tolerance, and adaptability.

Additionally, a review of therapeutic interventions involving siblings of children with ASD, conducted by Shivers and Plavnick in 2014, revealed positive outcomes not only for the child with ASD but also for the siblings themselves. However, this was contingent upon the siblings not being overwhelmed with responsibilities at home, and the interventions being tailored to their desires and skills.

But, unfortunately numerous studies also report adverse outcomes for siblings of children with disabilities. This is where organisations like “Siblings Australia.org.au” are stepping in to assist thousands of affected siblings across the country in finding their voices and articulating their needs. Founded by Kate Strohm, a sibling of a sister with a disability, Siblings Australia has been advocating for siblings’ recognition on both national and state levels for over 25 years. Their mission includes advocating for strong family foundations and support for all.

Educational and Developmental Psychologist Dr. Kimberley O’Brien from Quirlykids emphasises that parents can help their typically developing children thrive and develop strengths through their experiences with a high-needs sibling. Here are some strategies she recommends:

  1. Keep siblings informed: Share information in an age- appropriate manner to alleviate fears and uncertainties.
  2. Involve siblings in interventions: Engage siblings in therapy sessions at home, making them enjoyable and less tedious.
  3. Spend one-on-one time with siblings: Make them feel valued and special.
  4. Encourage expression of feelings: Allow siblings to express negative emotions openly and honestly.
  5. Facilitate social connections: Help siblings build a strong social network, including professional support if needed, such as counseling or therapy.

Dr Kimberley O’Brien has written a book called “Siblings”.

book siblings

For more help and support from Siblings Australia, information can be found at Siblingsaustralian.org.au