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

Disabled children's impact on their normal siblings

(Part 2 of 4)

A recent study done by Williams, Piamjariyajulm, Graff and Stanton (2010) on how children with disability impact their normal siblings confirmed results from earlier studies reporting that normal children are more negatively impacted by their disabled siblings. Those studies indicated that 74.1% of children reported suffering from its negative impact, while 24.2% reported that having a disabled sibling changed them for the better (p. 51).

However, these positive and negative impacts are closely intertwined, like two sides of a coin. For instance, some of the positive impact reported include: family closeness, increase sensitivity, care giving toward the disabled sibling, and personal growth and maturation, but at the same time, they often turn into, “overly responsible caretakers all throughout their lives” (Williams, et. al., 2010, pp. 49-50).  Their maturation and independence happen prematurely, and their “symptoms of dysfunctions and pain, if any, are hidden or dismissed” (Abrams, pp. 309, 312). Thus, the positive impact can also be seen as being a negative. Feelings of “altruism and feelings of depression do in fact, sometimes coexist in siblings of disabled child” (Siegel, Silverstein, 1994, p.24).

Most of the positive or “externalizing” impacts are related to their ability to get along with others,” while the “internalizing” impacts relate to feelings of depression or low self-esteem (Siegel & Silverstein, 1994, p.24).  Normal children are expected to help in the care of their disabled siblings.

As such, they learn to look after another person’s well being before their own, as well as learn to be sensitive to those who are different. But then again, as they sacrifice their own needs, which “may seem successful to the external world, it occurs at a cost to the person overtime” (Abrams, 2009, p. 312). However, another positive is that normal children develop a more intimate and nurturing relationship with their siblings with special needs so much more than with their other normal brothers and sisters (Kaminsky & Dewey, 2001, p. 407).  

It is reported that parents expect their normal children, especially older daughters, to help in the taking care of their disabled siblings. (Damiani, 1999, p. 38). This expectation for children to assume care giving role for their disabled siblings, coupled with the unintended neglect by their parents, are what  impact normal children negatively.

It creates a stressful environment that makes them feel, “anger, resentment, guilt, and quite possibly, psychological disturbance” (Burke, 2004, p. 72).  Normal siblings feel guilty for being normal, and even younger children feel guilty for assuming that they are somehow to blame for their sibling’s disability (Abrams, 2009, p. 313).

They also feel anger and resentment toward their parents, because their disabled sibling’s tantrums and destructive behavior are often left unpunished. They may resent that their family is different. For example, they cannot go on vacation in the way the normal families do. Often times they could not go on vacation as a family at all!

They may also resent that they are expected to make excuses and/or defend their disabled siblings from bullying, teasing or even unfriendly stares. Although there is a part of them that wants to help take care of their disabled siblings, they could also feel resentful at having to do the same. Even their feelings of resentment bring about feelings of guilt and shame (Siegel & Silverstein, 1994, p. 26). 

These children may also struggle with feelings of shame and embarrassment. This is particularly worst for pre-adolescent children, ages 9 to 12, who have a greater need for approval and acceptance, and, to whom, “appearances in public and among one’s peers are crucial to the adolescent’s self-esteem” (Siegel & Silverstein, 2009, p. 195).

They may feel embarrassed about their disabled sibling’s inappropriate behavior in public places. All these negative emotions often turn to depression, which affects the child’s school performance and ability to develop and maintain relationship with others. They feel “stigmatized,” and  “suffer loss of self-esteem” (Burke, p. 82).

Part 3: Factors that affect severity of the impact of disbled children on their normal siblings

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