For the majority of us our relationships with our brother and sisters are some of the most important in our lives. Sibling relationships can be a great source of meaning, enjoyment and mutual support, but they can also be challenging at times.
When one person in a family is struggling, it impacts on everyone in the family, including siblings. Siblings are often required to take on a carer or supportive role when their brother or sister suffers from a disability, chronic physical or mental health condition.
The impact on siblings when this occurs is often underestimated and unrecognised.
The experience of having a brother or sister with a mental or physical health condition is different for everyone. It is a complex journey and you may experience a mix of reactions and feelings.
Siblings of people with disability are often more caring and kind, sensitive and responsive to the needs of others, tolerant and compassionate, mature, responsible, independent and empathetic. They’re also unlikely to take their own good health for granted.
However, the experience of having a brother or sister with mental or physical health conditions can have negative consequences on a sibling’s quality of life and mental health.
Caring for a sibling may bring with it a number of challenges including:
- Emotions such as anger, guilt, grief and sadness
- Increased stress and responsibility
- Increased expectations and reduced time for own needs
- Feelings of abandonment and isolation as parents’ attention may be directed to the sibling
Siblings that take on a caring role may be at increased risk of developing mental health conditions themselves. One study of siblings of children with a disability found that
- 66% of adult siblings reported anxiety during childhood
- 54% of adult siblings reported depression during childhood
- 84% of adult siblings reported family stress was an issue during their childhood
What may help?
Being the sibling of someone with a physical or mental health condition may have positive and negative impacts on a sibling. Many factors contribute to this outcome. However, for those that are struggling it is important to know that help is available and most importantly, you are not alone. It may help to:
Connect with other siblings
Read resources for siblings
There are many good books available that describe the experience of being a sibling. Some good recommendations include:
- Siblings: Brothers and Sisters of Children with Disability(Kate Strohm), Wakefield Press, Adelaide, revised edition 2014
- My Sister’s Keeper: Learning to Cope with a Sibling’s Mental Illness (M Moorman), WW Norton, New York, 1992
Seek counselling when needed
Counselling may help you to develop strategies to manage difficult feelings and to care for yourself. You may wish to explore your experiences of being in a carer role and the impact this has had upon you.
Being a sibling of a special needs person is a unique and sometimes challenging experience, but most people will tell you they have benefitted from it. It is important that these unique challenges are acknowledged, and that help is sought when needed. Carers cannot care if they are struggling themselves.