Siblings of children with special needs have special needs themselves. Their sister or brother with special needs will get a bigger share of attention. While having a special needs sib presents challenges, it also comes with opportunities. Kids who grow up with a sibling with special health or developmental needs may have more of a chance to develop many good qualities, including:
- kindness and supportiveness
- acceptance of differences
- compassion and helpfulness
- empathy for others and insight into coping with challenges
- dependability and loyalty that may come from standing up for their brother or sister.
Your child may, at times, have trouble coping with being the sibling of a child with special needs. They may have many different and even conflicting feelings. For example, they may feel:
- worried about their sibling
- jealous of the attention their brother/sister receives
- scared that they will lose their sibling
- angry that no one pays attention to them
- resentful of having to explain, support, and/or take care of their brother/sister
- resentful that they are unable to do things or go places because of their sibling
- embarrassed about their sibling's differences
- pressure to be or do what their sibling cannot
- guilty for negative feelings they have toward their sibling or guilty for not having the same problems.
When parents tune in to the individual needs of each child in the family, they can help ease the difficulties.
Sometimes the feelings can be so intense or disruptive, that a child may need professional counseling to help them cope. Meeting and talking with other kids going through the same thing can also be very helpful--even if it's just online. Below, you'll find resources to help your family find connections with other siblings going through similar things.
Talk to your doctor if you see any of these warning signs:
- changes in eating or sleeping (too much or too little)
- physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches
- poor concentration
- poor self-esteem
- talk of hurting themselves
- difficulty separating from parents
- loss of interest in activities
- frequent crying or worrying
You can expect some degree of sibling rivalry, even when one child has an illness or developmental disability. But sometimes the rivalry crosses the line into abuse. If there is a chance the sibling relationship has become abusive, you should seek professional help. Talk to your health care provider about options.
Some possible signs of sibling abuse are:
- One child always avoids their sibling
- A child has changes in behavior, sleep patterns, eating habits, or has nightmares
- A child acts out abuse in play
- A child acts out sexually in inappropriate ways
- The children’s roles are rigid: one child is always the aggressor, the other, the victim
- The roughness or violence between siblings is increasing over time
You can help your kids better understand what having a sibling with special needs means to your family, and you can also help your kids figure out constructive and appropriate ways to express their feelings and make sure their needs are met.
- First, get the basics on YourChild: sibling rivalry.
- What siblings would like parents and service providers to know—from the Sibling Support Project.
- Siblings of children with special needs—From the NYU Child Study Center, with information about feelings, what kids can understand at different ages, and general parenting tips.
- When special needs spark sibling rivalry—with tips for minimizing rivalry when one child has special needs.
- Sibling issues for some specific health and developmental needs:
- Sibling issues in a family with a child with autism.
- Supporting siblings of children with Down syndrome.
- Cancer and siblings.
Caring for a child with special needs along with all the other demands of work and caring for the rest of the family can be very challenging. If the demands and the stress level are high in your family, it is difficult for everyone. Sometimes family counseling helps. You can also check out YourChild: Children with Chronic Conditions for tips on family coping.
- The National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY) News Digest #11 (“Children with Disabilities: Understanding Sibling Issues”) delves into issues of siblings of children with special needs. This lengthy digest features several interesting articles, different points of view, suggestions for parents, and reviews research findings.
- The Winds of the Hurricane: Siblings in the Storm of Illness, by Joan Fleitas, is an article about siblings of kids diagnosed with a serious illness. She discusses common concerns of siblings and offers suggestions for parents.
- Siblings of Children with Chronic Illness and Disability offers a parent's and professional's perspective, and a lengthy resource list (scroll down) with books, Web sites, videos and organizations.
- The Sibling Support Project is a national program for brothers and sisters of people with special health and developmental needs. The Project's main goal is to promote peer support and education programs for brothers and sisters of people with special needs. They create books and newsletters to raise awareness, conduct workshops, and sponsor listservs. The website has a great list of books and other resources for children and adults. You can also find local events for siblings of special-needs kids. They also run a listserv just for kids, called SibKids.
- SuperSibs! is an organization that supports siblings of kids with cancer. They provide support for siblings, including mailed packages. They also advocate for siblings of kids with cancer with outreach and education efforts.
- A fact sheet from the National Resource Center for Respite and Crisis Care Services: Siblings of Children with Special Health and Developmental Needs: Programs, Services and Considerations—with information on understanding the concerns of siblings, creating programs for them and a checklist for agencies.
- Siblings for Significant Change is a national network that works to build mutual support for siblings of handicapped persons. They train siblings to be advocates for themselves and their families, and provide networking for support and socializing, quarterly meetings, newsletter, phone network, speakers’ bureau, audio-visual material, and local chapters. Write: Siblings for Significant Change, 350 Fifth Ave., Room 627, New York, NY 10118. Call 1-212-643-2663 or 1-800-841-8251.
- Please note: The Sibling Information Network no longer exists. You will come across outdated contact information for them at some of the links on this page.
Related pages on YourChild:
- Sibling rivalry
- New baby sibling
- Sibling Abuse
- Children with Chronic Conditions
- Developmental Delay
- Genetic Syndromes
- Learning Disabilities
- It Isn't Fair! Edited by Stanley D. Klein and Maxwell J. Schleifer
Presents a wide range of perspectives on the relationship of siblings to children with disabilities, written by parents, young adult siblings, younger siblings, and professionals. The issues of fairness, expectations, rewards, punishments, caretaking responsibilities, and negative feelings are all thoroughly discussed.
- Living with a Brother or Sister with Special Needs: A Book for Siblings, by Donald Meyer and Patricia Vadasy.
May be useful for both parents and children to read.
- Brothers and Sisters: A Special Part of Exceptional Families, by Thomas Powell and Peggy Gallagher.
- Siblings Without Rivalry, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.
A real classic—a quick and easy read with powerful techniques you can start using right away.
- How to Cope with Mental Illness in Your Family: A Self Care Guide for Siblings, Offspring and Parents, by Diane Marsh, Rex Dickens and E. Fuller Torrey.
- When Madness Comes Home: Help and Hope for the Children, Siblings and Partners of the Mentally Ill, by Victoria Secunda.
Sometimes reading a book with your child can open up a dialog about issues they are facing. Check out some of these books and see if they help get your kids talking about their feelings and experiences. Below are listed a few titles. Many more books for kids and adults are listed in the Sibling Support Project Store.
- We'll Paint the Octopus Red, by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen
Ages 3-7. Emma’s baby brother Isaac is born with Down syndrome.
- Ben, King of the River, by David Gifaldi.
Ages 5-8. Chad, the older brother of a developmentally disabled boy, narrates this story about the family's first camping trip. Chad’s frank story-telling gets across the highs and lows of the trip and of life with Ben, and his mixed emotions. Includes a page of tips for siblings of kids with special needs.
- My Brother, Matthew, by Mary Thompson
Ages 4-11. Offers a sibling's point-of-view of the ups and downs of life when your brother is born with a disability. David, the older brother, wryly shares the worry, impatience, feeling left out, being talked down to by grown-ups—and the positive ways in which he has built a unique relationship with his brother.
- Way to Go, Alex!, by Robin Pulver.
Ages 4-8. Carly feels the dual emotions that many siblings of special-needs children may feel. Her older brother Alex participates in the Special Olympics.
- Sara’s Secret, by Suzanne Wanous.
Ages 7-9. Sara's secret is her little brother Justin, who has cerebral palsy and mental retardation. Her love for him and the discomfort he causes her at school are realistically portrayed.
- My Sister Annie, by Bill Dodds.
Ages 8-15. Twelve-year-old Charlie’s sister Annie has Down syndrome. This is a thoughtful novel about his growing pains and struggle to accept a sister who is "different".
- Views from Our Shoes: Growing Up With a Brother or Sister With Special Needs, edited by Donald J. Meyer
For ages 7 and up. 45 children aged 4-18 contributed to this book. They share their experiences as the brother or sister of someone with a disability—the good and the bad, as well as many thoughtful observations.
- The Summer of the Swans, by Betsy Byars
Ages 9-15. A 14-year-old girl’s mentally retarded little brother gets lost, and the family realizes how much they really appreciate him.
- A Real Christmas This Year, by Karen Williams.
Ages 9-15. Megan’s special-needs little brother makes life harder on her family, just when she already has lots of things going on in her own life. Realistically portrays the life of the family in caring for a disabled child.
- Welcome Home, Jellybean, by Marlene Shyer.
Ages 9-15. Neil’s sister, Gerri, comes home from an institution to live with their family.
- Fasten Your Seatbelt: A Crash Course on Down Syndrome for Brothers and Sisters, by Brian Skotko & Susan Levine.
Written for teens who have a brother or sister with Down syndrome. In an easy-to-read, question & answer format, it tackles a broad range of their most common issues and concerns. Find out more.
Written and compiled by Kyla Boyse, R.N. Reviewed by Brenda Volling, Ph.D.
Updated July 2009