The work of the MSSN focuses on supporting siblings of people with disabilities. At any age, being a sibling can be challenging — and this is especially true for young children who are still learning to navigate the world and their place in it, as well as their own complex emotions.
Parents and caregivers often have hectic schedules. It can be challenging to carve out the space to address each child’s individual needs — despite the deep desire to do so.
If you feel this way, you are not alone. Below are some tips that can help parents and caregivers build resiliency among young siblings of people with disabilities.
Strategies To Support Young Siblings
By Emily Rubin, MA, LCSW
1. Talk openly with siblings. The most effective intervention for siblings is for parents/guardians to talk openly with them in age-appropriate language, acknowledging the challenging family life, and the fact that a child’s disability impacts every member of the household.
2. Validate the sibling experience. Listen actively to the sibling, and validate his/her complaints (“I understand you get angry when your brother/sister does such-and-such”). This will let the sibling know that their concerns are important, and that you understand what they are going through.
3. Avoid blame. Try not to blame the child with the disability, and remind siblings that everyone has something he or she struggles with.
4. Help siblings figure out what to say. It can feel uncomfortable for siblings to answer questions about the brother’s/sister’s disability, or to try to explain to friends, relatives, or strangers why the brother/sister is acting differently. Give them language to use that is appropriate to the situation.
5. Encourage siblings to attend sibling support groups. Sibling support groups with adult facilitators provide a safe and welcoming environment for siblings to talk with other sibs who appreciate what they’re going through. Just as parents benefit from talking with other parents of similar children, it can feel both comforting and liberating for siblings to meet others who share their experiences.
6. Try individual or family therapy. Individual and/or family therapy with a trained clinician can be extremely beneficial for siblings, especially for those sibs who don’t want to attend sibling support groups. Siblings shouldn’t have to harbor secrets about their home life.
7. Encourage siblings to have their own lives. Encourage siblings to develop interests and hobbies of their own. This will build their confidence and give them outlets to express themselves outside of the family.
8. Separate siblings frequently. Separating siblings gives them a much-needed break from one another. Spending time apart can be refreshing for siblings and can lead to more positive interactions when they come back together.
9. Help siblings identify “safe buddies.” Safe buddies are understanding friends or relatives they can turn to when home life becomes challenging.
10. Spend one-on-one time. Try to spend one-on-one time with siblings, even if it’s a simple activity like watching television together or walking around the neighborhood. Focusing attention on the sibling conveys the message that the sibling is important, and that you value your time together.
11. Connect with other parents. Parents who struggle with similar issues can provide valuable resources, in addition to advice and support. If a support group for parents of children with disabilities is offered in your community, join it. If one isn’t available, approach your local school or mental health center and suggest starting one.