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 siblings.

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 adult caring responsibilities

You need to look out for your typically developing child feeling 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 her sibling, over time this can strain the relationship between your children. That’s because being responsible is hard work, and taking care of siblings can be boring and annoying.

It’s OK for children to take on more responsibility at home as they get older, but teenage children also have more schoolwork or often get part-time jobs. Teenagers might also feel resentful if caring for a sibling stops them spending time with friends or doing things they enjoy.

For teenagers, you could negotiate when your child will look after his sibling and perhaps even pay him sometimes.

Distinction between sibling and parent caring responsibilities

It’s a good idea to be clear about the difference 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, ‘Sophie, I was hoping you could sit with Sam 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 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.

Family rules

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, 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.

You can support siblings of children with disability by making time to talk with them, spending time together and problem-solving together.

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