Dr. Willis Newman, Esmeralda Newman, bible-teaching-about.com

Children with Disability and their Impact on Normal Siblings

By Esmeralda Newman

Written for graduate study course requirement, Liberty University

Part 1 of 4


This paper reviews available literature from 1994 to 2011 on how children with disability impact their normal siblings. Reports reveal that normal siblings are both positively and negatively affected by their disabled siblings. The negative impacts lie in the externalized behavior affecting their relationship with others. These children are more caring, sensitive, tolerant and accepting of their siblings and those who are different.  

The negative impacts lie mostly in the internalized emotions such as anger, resentment and guilt. This paper will also discuss the different factors that mitigate the negative impact including family structure, economic status, religion as well as the normal children’s gender and age. The paper ends with recommendations to parents and the health care community about what they can do to help normal siblings of children with disability cope better in their unique family environment. 


According to the Arc of the United States, a leading advocacy group for the mentally retarded, “an estimated seven million American children have siblings with disabilities” (Cook, 2006). These children face challenges that are remarkably differently from those who live without disabled siblings. Although there are support systems to help disabled children and their caregivers, the needs of normal siblings are often overlooked.  

In this paper, literature from 1994 to 2011 on the subject of how disabled children impact their normal siblings is reviewed to assess the kinds and the severity of the impacts. Factors that help mitigate the negative impact are discussed, and recommendations are suggested to parents and health care professionals on how they can help parents and  normal siblings of disabled children cope and adjust better in their unique family environment. 

Disability is defined as, “A developmental disability is defined as any mental or physical disability that is manifested before age 22 years; and that is likely to continue to indefinitely; and that is substantially limits one or more life activities, such as walking, seeing, speaking, breathing or learning”  (van Dyke, et.al., 2004, cited by Williams, Piamjariyaku, Graff, & Stanton, 2010, p.40). According to Disabled-World.com, there are an estimated 650 million people have some kind of disability around the world (Disabled word...com).

When a child is born, a couple’s life changes in ways they are often unprepared for. When the second and third children are born, the life of the couple and their older child are changed for good. Siblings provide the, “first social network and are the basis for his or her interactions with people outside the family” (Powell & Ogle, 1985, cited by NICHCY, 1994, segment on Children with disabilities: Understanding Sibling Issues, par. 3).  

Though siblings can have healthy relationships where they accord each other, “support, companionship and a sense of security, they can also be a source of strife” (Feldman, 2011, p. 332). For example, it is not uncommon for children to engage in sibling rivalry. Sibling rivalry is characterized by feelings or hostility, jealousy and resentment toward the rival sibling, and may be manifested in “aggressive behavior” (Burke, P., 2004, p. 45). 

Sibling rivalry is intensified when parents are perceived to be playing favorites with their children (Feldman, 2011, p. 332). For families with a disabled child, siblings often experience serious sibling rivalry due to the amount of time and care parents afford their disabled child. Sometimes, even when the parents try to divide their time between their sick and healthy children, the healthy or normal child may still perceive their parents as playing favorite (NICHCY, Family stress factors section, 1994, par. 5).

Family stress begins with the diagnosis of a child’s disability. This news profoundly impacts and changes the whole family. First, the family goes through the grieving process: “denial-disassociation-isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance” (Maciejewski, P.K., Zhang, B., Block, S.D., & Prigerson, H.G., 2007, p. 716). The grief stems from, “a death in the family, which is complicated by stigma, the cyclical nature of the illness, and the continuing presence of the bereaved” (Abrams, 2009, p. 307-308). 

Eventually, the presence of the disabled along with the perpetual demands it places upon everybody else in the family becomes what is “normal.”  The healthy, normal brothers and sisters, “experience a secondary form of disability,” as they have to make the necessary adjustments to accommodate the special needs of their disabled siblings (Glendinning, 1986, cited by Burke, P. 2004, p. 44).

Jeanne Safer (2002) describes her own experience living with a disabled sibling:

No one with an abnormal sibling has a normal childhood. Consciously or unconsciously, every intact sibling is haunted by the fear of catching the disability, a fear that always has a modicum of psychological truth. Family gatherings and significant events become occasions for anxiety and suppressed shame. Cheerful caretakers mature before their time; they are supposed to consider themselves lucky to be normal. They feel tormented by the compulsion to compensate for their parents’ disappointments by having no problems and making no demands, and they are often unaware of the massive external and internal pressure to pretend that nothing is amiss. Their success is always tainted by their sibling’s failure, their future clouded by an untoward sense of obligations and responsibility. Their goal is to be different from their sibling as possible. They live forever in the shadow of the one who does not function (p. xviii).

Next: Part 2 - Disabled children's impact on their normal siblings

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