What about the siblings? Growing up with ‘different’

By Alive & Well


I grew up with an intellectually disabled brother, who I’ll call B (because actually, that’s his nickname in our family). For the most part, my experience of being his sibling was overwhelmingly positive.

Sure, I was fiercely protective whenever we went out without our parents – down the street for an ice-cream, on a tram ride for fun, that sort of thing – so there was the odd time I wanted to punch someone in the face for being mean to him or looking at him funny. But I resisted.

The thing is, although B has intellectual challenges, he’s the happiest and most connected sibling in the family. Really. He’s easy to please, regularly joyful, contributes to his community every day and always has a lot of love for whoever he’s with. There’s a lot to learn from my brother!

But it can be tough for many families

via weheartit.comResearch tells us that not all siblings of children with challenges have a positive experience all the time.

Households with children who have autism are much more likely to struggle with family dysfunction and lack of parental confidence[1]. Siblings of children with autism experience lower physical and emotional wellbeing than siblings of children with Down syndrome[2]. And sibling wellbeing in adolescence and adulthood has been correlated to the severity of the autistic child’s behavioural problems[3].

When it comes to looking after their ‘normal’ children, parents say that they:

  • feel like they can’t give them adequate attention, and wonder whether the extra time given to the child with additional needs will make them feel jealous or resentful
  • worry that they’re ‘cheating’ them from being able to participate in regular family activities
  • expect too much of them, placing too many demands on them when they’re young
  • feel anxious or uncomfortable about inviting their friends over, in case the child with special needs behaves in a way that causes discomfort.

What do the siblings say?

It can be confusing for kids, particularly when they’re little. Many of them talk about how conflicted they feel, grappling with a range of emotions including pride, love, anger, resentment and embarrassment[4].

We know that having a sibling with special needs can be enriching, as I believe it was for me, but it does have its challenges.

In upcoming posts I’ll be exploring ways to support siblings, and I hope you’ll share your ideas and comments with me along the way.

What’s your experience of growing up with a ‘different’ sibling? Positive, negative, somewhere in between, all of the above?

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[1] Rao PA, Beidel DC, 2009, The Impact of Children with High-Functioning Autism on Parental Stress, Sibling Adjustment and Family Functioning, Behavior Modification, 33(4):437-51.

[2] O’Brien I, Duffy A, Nicholl H, 2009, Impact of childhood chronic illnesses on siblings: a literature review, British Journal of Nursing, Dec, 18(22):1358, 1360-65.

[3] Orsmond GI, Kuo H, Seltzer MM, 2009, Siblings of individuals with an autism spectrum disorder: sibling relationships and wellbeing in adolescence and adulthood, Autism: The International Journal of Research & Practice, 13(1):59-80.

[4] Strohm K, 2008, Too Important to ignore: Siblings of children with special needs, Australian e- Journal for the Advancement of Mental Health, 7(2):1-6.