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Caring responsibilities: siblings of children with disability
It’s a normal part of family life for all children to help their brothers or sisters. Children with siblings with disability can feel helpful and trusted if you encourage them to help with caring for their sibling.
But it’s a good idea to keep an eye on how much and what kind of care your typically developing child is taking on.
Pressure to take on an adult role
You especially need to look out for your typically developing child feeling the pressure to take on a parenting or adult role. For example, you might notice your typically developing child turning down opportunities to be with his friends so he can watch out for his sibling with disability.
Although your child wants to care for his sibling, over time this can strain the relationship between your children, because it’s hard work being responsible and it can be boring and annoying to care for siblings.
Distinction between sibling and parent roles
It’s a good idea to be clear what the difference is between siblings and parents when it comes to caring responsibilities.
Siblings are there to spend time together and help out with things like pushing wheelchairs, showing siblings how to draw animals, or reading books to siblings. Parents do things like helping children go to the toilet, changing feeding tubes, or managing tantrums. They also make big decisions like whether children need to go to hospital in an emergency.
How to work out caring responsibilities
Here are some things to think about when you’re working out what caring responsibilities are OK for your typically developing child:
- Try to give your child a choice about how much she helps her sibling. For example, ‘Sam, I was hoping you could sit with Sophie while she does her stretches. Would you be happy to do that?’
- Think about whether your child is old enough to take on the responsibility. Some responsibilities like personal care-giving tasks or supervising a sibling might not be OK.
- Think about how often and for how long your child is helping. You could even keep a record over a week or so, to get an accurate idea.
- Consider what else might be going on for your child when you ask for extra help. For example, is he studying for exams? Does he want to spend time with his friends?
Family roles and tasks
It’s a good idea to make sure that everyone in your family has a role in doing family tasks. This includes your child with disability as well as your typically developing children.
This sends a powerful message about fairness to all your children, which can help in building relationships between siblings. And it’s also good for helping your family get things done!
The key is choosing tasks the suit the ages and skills of all your children, but still making sure everyone can do something.
Consistent rules and consequences for all your children sends the message that everyone is important and equal.
For example, if your family rule is that you all speak nicely to each other, your child with disability should follow this rule just like your typically developing children. And if breaking a rule has the consequence of having to say sorry or losing a phone or iPad for 10 minutes, this should apply to everyone too.
You can also try to be consistent with praising your children for good things, which will increase the likelihood they’ll behave this way again. For example ‘Mary, I really like the way you set the table when I asked. Thank you’.
Looking after yourself
One of the best ways to support and care for all your children is to look after yourself too.
Being fit, well and happy keeps you in good shape for looking after other people. If you’re stressed and overwhelmed, it’s harder to care for your children and help them care for each other.
If you’re struggling, ask your GP or other health professional for help. This is important for your wellbeing, and it’s also good for everyone in your family.
Where to get support
Although siblings of children with disability are generally well adjusted, all children are different. Some children might find it harder than others and might need extra support.
As a parent, you’re the best judge of whether your child needs more support. It’s a good idea to ask for support if you notice your typically developing child is showing signs of stress. These signs might include trouble sleeping, changes to diet, emotional outbursts or withdrawing from friends or activities.
You could start by talking to your GP or the professionals supporting you and your family. Another option is for you and your child to talk with a psychologist or counsellor.
A sibling support group might help your typically developing children cope and give them a chance to meet other children in similar circumstances. MyTime groups have resources for parents and siblings.