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Many families with children who have disabilities are often faced with the problem of dealing with sibling issues pertaining to the same. In the past few decades, most of the treatment philosophies employed in handling disability have shifted from the traditional medical approach to a more comprehensive therapeutic approach (Dyke, Mulroy, and Leonard, 2009). Therapeutic treatment involves the treatment of disability and its antecedents through the inclusion of the family. This is the basis through which this study will analyze sibling relationships between siblings who are disabled and non-disabled.
Sibling relationships are very critical in the functioning of most families because they are often very essential to the cohesiveness of any family unit. Sage and Brinda (2010) declare that the relationship between siblings is of core importance since it is a lifelong relationship. Sibling relationships are also very essential in the developmental stages of children who are disabled because they make up the first attempt in the development of social relationship networks (Powell & Ogle, 1985). Roeyers and Buysse (2003) reiterate that “Siblings make it possible to share, to express feelings and to experience friendship, loyalty, rivalry and support” (p. 193).
Indeed, many siblings are often playmates in the developmental stages of their childhood, but as they grow up, they take up new roles in the family, and even in the way they relate to each other. Disability is one of the issues that normally affect this kind of relationship. In other words, many children find the task of adjusting to siblings with disability quite challenging, but many still rise up to the challenge and adapt well. With regards to this concern, Crnic, and Leconte (1986) note that:
“Siblings may, over the years, be many things to each other — teacher, friend, companion, follower, protector, enemy, competitor, confidant, role model. When this relationship is affected by a sibling’s disability or chronic illness, the long-term benefits of the relationship may be altered. For example, the child with a disability may have limited opportunities to interact with other children outside the family; thus, social interaction between siblings often takes on increasing importance” (pp. 75-76).
In adjusting to siblings with disability, many resources are needed; some of them are financial, psychological, emotional, time-related and attention-related (Pattnaik, 2004, p. 46). These resources are especially important to families faced with disability challenges because such challenges if not well handled, may affect the developmental process of both children who are not disabled and disabled.
Many researchers have affirmed that the self-esteem development of both categories of children is one functional developmental area that is most affected (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1994). Considering the importance of this issue in the attempt to understand the underlying issues in sibling relationships between children who are not disabled and disabled; this study will provide a comprehensive summary of research articles pertaining to parent-professional communication strategies. Conversely, the study will also revolve around issues regarding families and para-professionals on the same.
The realization that a child has a disabled is often a stress factor for most families. Most often than not, researchers note that this kind of situation can cause increased anxiety and tension among family members and in this regard, siblings ought to be told why such tensions exist (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1994). Some of the most commonly identified stress factors include a strain on financial resources which need to be availed for taking care of the disabled children and high expectations on siblings who are not disabled to openly embrace disability as a “normal” thing (Gerber, 1990).
This sort of expectations normally increase the level of anxiety siblings of children with disabilities have, but most of the time, such children do not voice such concerns. Many parents also do not normally acknowledge that such a problem exists and so they act like there is no problem within the family (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1994). Sage and Brinda (2010) note that siblings of children with autism lack adequate understanding of the disability since most parents overestimate their children’s understanding of the disability.
Research studies done by the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights Center, Inc. (cited in National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1994) note that; parents need to be aware that siblings of children who are disabled can develop a tendency to feel jealous of the extra attention children with disabilities get as a result of their condition. These findings are corroborated by Macks and Reeve (2007) who reveal that because parents spend so much time attending to the need of the disabled child, they often end up neglecting the needs of the other children. This normally results in a strain of relationships between the siblings.
Macks and Reeve (2007) further report that the loss or absence of parental attention may act as a stressor to siblings of children with autism. In this regard, experts note that parents should exercise constraint and refrain from victimizing their children for being jealous; instead, they should sit the children down and explain to them the nature of disability, its implications and what it actually means for the family (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1994). This is important because experts also note that the process of understanding disability is not usually within the grasp of children (Binkard, 1987).
However, there are cases where siblings who are not disabled may often feel obligated to make up for the shortcomings of siblings who are disabled. In such cases, the sibling may feel overly empathic to the sibling who is disabled (Lashley, 2005). Such a case may lead to the development of positive personality traits such as tolerance and empathy among the sibling with disability because he or she develops a deep level of understanding regarding disability as a condition (Hames, 2005).
This is one advantage researchers have observed when comparing siblings interacting with a family member who is disabled and those who do not (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1994). The non-disabled sibling is also likely to develop a positive self-concept as a result of his/her exposure to their disabled sibling.
Macks and Reeve (2007) observe that siblings of children with autism have a more positive self-concept and are more likely to have a positive view of their behavior, intelligence, and scholastic performance. The maturity level of siblings of disabled children is also higher than that of their peers. Macks and Reeve (2007) suggest that this may be because such are often forced to mature up quickly since they have to look out for their disabled siblings. This maturity results in better social skills and improved behavior compared to their peers who do not have disabled siblings.
Parents determine the extent to which conflicts occur among the children. This is an important consideration especially with autism which is characterized by extreme variation in behavior which may predispose family members to conflict (Macks & Reeve, 2007). Research indicates that the relationship between children and their parents impacts on their interaction with their siblings. Specifically, those siblings who have negative interactions with their mothers are prone to having conflicts with their siblings. Such conflicts result in children exhibiting non-cooperative behavior with their disabled siblings. Sage and Brinda (2010) therefore advice that the sustenance of good relationships between parents and children can have a nourishing effect on sibling relationships.
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Siblings with disabilities are also affected by family stress factors such as increased frustrations of not being understood, increased levels of discontent for being socially isolated and irritation brought about by often being reminded to do basic things (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1994). However, these stress factors are often overlooked by siblings who are not disabled only concentrate on the preferential care the sibling who is disabled gets.
In such situations, experts note that it is important for parents to be impartial to the children who are not disabled and disabled because conflicts normally arise when instances of double standards are detected by the siblings with disabilities (Fishbein, 2002). This should still be observed in spite of the fact that children who are disabled often need increased care since more parental attention which may often be perceived as unfair by the siblings without disabilities (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1994).
The cultural background of the family also plays a significant role in how siblings of children with disabilities act. This is because the culture informs the perception that the parents have regarding disability. For example, while European American families view genetics as the major contributor to autism, Asian families believe that the doctrine of Karma is responsible for the disability in their children (Sage & Brinda, 2010). As a result of these differing views, the European American families are more likely to encourage their children to learn about their disabled sibling’s condition and become accommodative to them.
This approach nurtures positive sibling relationship. In contrast to this, the Asian culture results in shame and the parents do not educate their children about the disability of their siblings (Sage & Brinda, 2010). As a result of the limited information and the higher ideals and expectations on the typically developing children, a negative relationship is fostered between the siblings. As such, it is evident that the approach of the parents greatly impacts how well siblings of children with disabilities adjust psychosocially as well as emotionally.
Professionals and parents need to understand that siblings of children who are disabled have limited life experiences to help them deal with situations where they have to tolerate siblings with disabilities (Featherstone, 1980). Because of this reason, research affirms that it is important for professionals to supply siblings who are not disabled and their parents with endless information about the problem (McKeever, 1983). In other words, professionals need to understand that there is a wide gap between what siblings without disabilities do and what they know about disability. Parents can help to bridge the informational gap that children have in respect to understanding illness and disability norms.
By providing information to the children regarding their sibling’s disability, the children can gain specific knowledge which will help them to better cope and hence avoid the negative effects of disability in sibling relationships (Macks & Reeve, 2007). With adequate knowledge, the typically developing child is able to provide clear explanations for their sibling’s behavior and therefore better accommodate it. The National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (1994) affirms that “A non-disabled sibling may be able to rationally explain a brother’s or sister’s disability to inquiring friends or neighbors, but may still exhibit temper tantrums over the same sibling’s actions in the home” (p. 41).
Extensively, the task of making children who are not disabled understand how to deal with disability is not a task to be solely undertaken by parents and professionals only; but rather a task to be carried out by the society as well. Such approaches have been embraced by some schools and hospitals that have designed programs to help children who are disabled live with their conditions but with the inclusion of siblings from the beginning (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1994). Such positive programs have also been noted to accommodate family support groups to share information and offer mutual support to the children with disabilities.
Family support groups is proposed as a useful tool to help siblings who are disabled better cope with their situation after it was established that a lack of family support may lead to the development of autism as another complication to affect the child’s social interaction capabilities (Shalev, 2007). However, other research studies done to explore the effects of autism in sibling relationships exposed the fact that siblings could easily adjust to each other after taking medication (Pilowsky, 2004). DSM-IV diagnosis is one method that depicts good results (Pilowsky, 2004). These developments have received appraisals from experts (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1994).
It is also important for professionals on the education field to be wary of the increased attention children who are disabled require because they hold an influential position in enabling siblings who are not disabled tolerate siblings with disabilities. In this regard, National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (1994) reiterates that:
“During the school years, especially the early years, teachers can help to promote sibling awareness and interaction by providing opportunities for siblings to learn about disabilities. For example, conducting a “sibling day” or a sibling workshop can be an excellent way of introducing siblings to a variety of disabilities. A “sibling day” can be held on a school day or on a weekend” (p, 34).
In such situations, activities to be undertaken by educationists may include simulation games, sign language instructions, and encouraging the sharing of positive stories regarding the interaction between siblings of children who are disabled and children who are not so that siblings without disabilities can develop a positive attitude of dealing with their siblings with disabilities.
This study identifies that parents and professionals can equally make positive contributions to enable siblings who are not disabled better understand how to deal with their siblings who are disabled. In the same regard, this study also identifies strategies through which children with disabilities can better cope with their situation. Comprehensively, we realize that many researchers advocate for parents to treat their children equally, regardless of their disability status, and with regards to professionals, researchers point out the usefulness of providing children who are not disabled with an endless supply of information to help them better deal with their siblings who are disabled. These strategies have been identified to help siblings of children with disabilities better cope with their siblings who are disabled.
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