Looking Out for Siblings of Disabled Children

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

There are sounds of objects crashing into walls and screaming. The girl hurries out of her room to get her younger brother into his bedroom. She knows she must act quickly to make sure he does not get hurt.

The commotion continues for several minutes before it becomes quiet. The girl cautiously comes out of her room with her younger brother. Usually when the quiet comes, it is safe to come out. She knows that her older brother just had another tantrum. They seem to be happening more frequently.

The girl’s parents look exhausted as the girl goes downstairs. They have been really stressed lately caring for her older brother. The girl is also quite concerned and has been trying not to add to her parents stress. That is one reason that she did not even bring up the tryouts for the dance team.

Situations like what the girl is experiencing can be quite common in families who have a child with an emotional or developmental disability. In many cases, family life is often organized around the needs, moods, and behavior of the child with the disability. This frequently means that the needs of the normal developing child are put aside.

Frequently siblings of disabled children are forced to grow up quickly as they are often asked to help out their parents in caring for their disabled sibling. However, children are often not equipped to handle the additional stressors that come with caring for a disabled child. This means siblings can be at-risk for developing their own mental health issues.

There are several approaches parents can take to head off mental health and behavioral issues from developing in siblings.  The first approach is to develop a support system for siblings which can give them a place to go when they are feeling overwhelmed. This could include regularly checking in with a family member or friend that the sibling feels comfortable confiding in. It could also consist of going to a therapist on a regular schedule. The point is for the sibling to feel there is some structure in place that she can turn to when needed.

Another approach is for parents to praise siblings’ positive behavior. Many times children with siblings with disabilities will end up copying some of the behavior they see. A way to prevent this is for parents to recognize when children are behaving well and acknowledge them for it. This should lessen the likelihood of copycat behavior.

A third approach is to be on the lookout for changes in a sibling’s behavior and act when concerns arise. This includes being aware of drastic changes in a child’s behavior and asking teachers and school counselors to be on the lookout for any changes in behavior at school. If behaviors do change, it is important to take action and get the child help as soon as possible.

A final approach is to have parents make sure that they are taking care of themselves. This means getting exercise, following a healthy diet, getting enough sleep and having some leisure time. When parents sacrifice any of these, the functioning of the family tends to suffer. Parents can’t be caregivers when they are worn down and stressed.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on August 30, 2015

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