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Siblings Impacted By Disabilities Too, Study Finds


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Siblings of children with disabilities are more likely than those with typically developing brothers or sisters to struggle with relationships, schoolwork, behavior and leisure time, a new study suggests.

In what’s believed to be the largest study of its kind, researchers looked at responses from parents of 245 children whose siblings had disabilities compared to feedback from parents of 6,564 children with only typically developing siblings. Kids were considered to have a disability if they were limited or unable to do things that other children their age could.

Overall, researchers found that parents of children with disabilities reported that their typically developing sons and daughters were more likely to feel sad, nervous or afraid. They also cited more problems with behavior, relating to adults or kids, completing schoolwork and participating in recreational activities, according to the study published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

What’s more, siblings of those with disabilities had higher levels of significant functional impairment than those with only typically developing brothers or sisters, the study found. Functional impairment is considered a key indicator that mental health services are needed, the researchers said.

“Environmental factors including stress, parenting styles, poverty status and living arrangement during childhood, together with biological factors, can have a direct and indirect impact on functional impairment in a child,” wrote Anthony Goudie of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and his colleagues in the study. “We contend that one such environmental factor of note is growing up with a sibling who has a disability.”

The researchers said that their findings suggest that professionals working with children with disabilities should also be mindful of the impact on siblings and parents.

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Comments (19 Responses)

  1. Mary Ann Tsourounakis says:

    Siblings ARE impacted by having a sibling with a disability. My experience is that the siblings are more compassionate and accepting of persons who “learn/grow/act differently”. The siblings develop a special kind of patience rarely seen in children of typically developing children. The siblings are advocates but set the bar a bit higher for their disabled sibling. This “higher bar” gives the disabled sibling supported opportunities to develop more typically.
    It is important for siblings to know that they are “not alone”. Providing “Sibling Workshops” (like AHRC NYC) could be a good source of help for siblings and parents.

  2. Allison says:

    I would agree with Mary Ann. In our experience, our daughter is very compassionate and understanding when it comes to her twin sister with disabilities. She has more patience and is an incredible advocate for her sister. I would be curious to hear your findings regarding the positive experiences these siblings have.

  3. Claire Nuchtern says:

    Siblings are definitely affected by being the siblings of someone with a disability. Siblings often have the longest connection to the individual with a disability and therefore are an extremely important piece of the family.
    I spent this summer traveling the country with two other college students interviewing 75+ “sibs” about their experiences. I learned that the “sib experience” affects each person in a unique and fascinating way and can hardly be summed up in this study’s conclusions.

  4. Claire Nuchtern says:

    I just reread the instructions and realized that links aren’t allowed in the comments but if you’re curious about our project, feel free to search for us, our project’s called Sibs’ Journey.

  5. Myrta I. Torres says:

    Siblings ARE impacted by having a sibling with a disability in both ways in my experience my son during his childhood expressed to me compassionate and accepting of persons who “learn/grow/act differently”. He ask me so many times who will be responsable for his sister if I’m not there. In his adolescent he mention he want to live his own life (some kind of frustrations maybe). Now he is 19 Y/O, I see him more responsable and cooperative, he develop a special kind of unique relationship with her, he has been participate in sibling forum telling other about his experience growing with a person with developmental delay and deafblind. As a parent I know is a learning process for all the member of the families, the siblings need to make more adjustments in their life than other who dont had a the experience to live with a person with intellectual or developmental delay. they really need to be listen and feel they are important part of the family also parent need to teach them about program, community, and state resources. They will be natural advocates.

  6. Kelli McIntosh says:

    I blog about my son with special needs and include a special section on “Siblings.” This section includes conversations I have with my daughter who is typically developing. She is definitely affected by having an older brother with special needs, but the positive affects outweigh any type of negative. Yes, she is more easily upset…just last night she was in tears because her brother can’t “play” with her like other siblings can. But, she is developing a wonderful awareness of people who might be different and how they should be treated just like anyone else. She has a wonderful grasp on faith and is mature in her outlook on the future and that life isn’t always exactly how we want it but can still be enjoyed by looking at the positive side of things. She has a wonderful connection to her older brother and knows how others should be treated, despite any challenges. I am very aware of her sensitive feelings, though, and strive to do my best to provide activities and special times just for her.

  7. Angie Greenlaw says:

    I agree with Mary Ann’s comment. My son, Foster, has grown up with his older brother with autism. This has truly helped him in so many ways. Im not saying it hasnt been frustrating for him at times, but year after year his teachers tell me what a compassionate young man he is. He has a bigger heart and understanding of people because of his brother’s disability. He is also more social than the average kid and very athleyic and academically inclined in school. He is his brothers biggest helper and toughest critic because he wants the best for him. His brother has also helped me in many ways as well. I have become 10 times the classroom teacher that I was before having a son with autism. It has given me a new perspective on people, learning, life and Iove. His disability has given others a beautiful ability. I think this article only focuses on the negative and those who choose to wallow in self pity.

  8. Angie Greenlaw says:

    A good way to approach issues with siblings is to educate and explain it in a positive light from the beginning. I wrote a children’s book years ago that really helped my son. It is available on It is called Sometimes My Brother by Angie Healy. Hope this continues to help more people like it did my family.

  9. Linda Gunther says:

    I think there is a generational variable as well that pulls on the perceptions and social mannerisms of the times. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, went to a special school for physically disabled kids and learned to apply my skills seperate from my able-bodied brother. I think we had a pretty normal bro-sis relationship with the typical amounts of sibling disagreements and teasing and even fist to cuffs. If my brother was ever compromised by my being disabled, it didn’t affect him for long periods of time. We were both vested with a very strong ego thanks to our parents.

  10. Deana Kayworth says:

    This has not been my experience as a Child Dev. Specialist and Sp Ed teacher for the past 37 years. I’ve been at this long enough to see countless numbers of siblings become doctors, nurses, PTs, OTs and Special Education teachers! I believe the empathy and compassion they learn as children directly impacts their lives direction as adults! Yes siblings ARE impacted, but your research is flawed. My experience says different!

  11. Tobey says:

    This is why Children’s Hospital in Seattle started “SibShops” many years ago. Normal functioning siblings of the disabled child meet to do fun activities and talk about their issues with like minded siblings in a safe environment with trained sib counselors. The kids are grouped by age, so that the activities and talk are age appropriate. Our teen son belongs to one and loves it! He can talk to other kids who “get” what he is dealing with, with his brother. The groups are either free or have a nominal fee to cover costs of the activity. These groups are offered nationally and internationally.

  12. Don Meyer says:

    Regardless of their age, brothers and sisters of people who have disabilities benefit from opportunities to share their unique joys and concerns with others who “get it.” Since 1990, the Sibling Support Project has sought to provide brothers and sisters with peer support and information. We’re probably best known for helping local communities start Sibshops–lively peer support programs for school-age brothers and sisters. There are currently over 400 Sibshops worldwide. We also host yahoogroups and Facebook groups for and about siblings, including SibKids, SibTeen, SibNet (for adult sibs), and SibParent (a forum where parents can discuss their “other” kids). These groups connect thousands of sibs from around the world.

  13. Beverley Hoggarth says:

    I am raising my Step-grandson with ARND but my biological grandson has developed an aggressive side where he’ll easily lash out. He is coming up to 3yrs and although he wants to be around my step-grandson he finds it hard to cope with his behaviour and he’ll lash out. I see my biological grandson 3/4 times a week. My step-grandson is 4yrs and I know kids fight but it’s like the 3yr old is on edge so I do believe that there is a down side to making sure our disabled kids have stability.

  14. Chris Gentry says:

    Brothers and sisters of kids with special needs are some of my favorite people in the whole world! Yes their lives (just like those of their parents) can be very challenging and frustrating at times, but the way that this is handled has a direct correlation with their outcomes. If the parents are compassionate, patient and understanding – the brothers and sisters will be as well. If the siblings are well supported with information, friendships of other “sibs” and activities that allow them to be themselves and express the varied emotions that come with having a brother or sister with a disability then their outcomes will be positive. If the feeling in the home is that of being a victim and helpless or angry – this is who they will be come as well. Unfortunately it takes effort and intentionnality to make the positive outweigh the negative (that comes so naturally) but I see it every day. For more information please google “sibbling support project.”

  15. vmgillen says:

    Siblings are impacted by siblings, or the absence of siblings. I am a graduate student, and a parent, and studies like this are real “Duh” moments. On the other hand, it is easy to get research funded and published, so this operates to my benefit, eh?

  16. Brenda M. Knight Registered Psychologist Vancouver BC says:

    This article is raising a very serious issue which I have seen in my work with individuals and families living with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Siblings deal with many psychological issues related to being in a family with siblings with complex needs. This also requires that the parents/caregivers need to be aware of the siblings and provide them the support and services to help them understand and develop skills to cope with these issues. Adoptive families are often in this position. I believe that the community needs to provide treatment services to siblings in childhood and adulthood when required. Thanks for raising this topic.

  17. Emily S. says:

    Having a brother with Autism didn’t just affect me – It defined me for most of my childhood. I would be interested in a study that looked at codependent characteristics of adult siblings. As an adult, I’ve struggled with an eating disorder and an addiction, and I believe that my thinking and emotional patterns that fueled these struggles developed from coping with my brother. Unrealistically high expectations of myself, fear of abandonment, shame, being a rescuer, etc. – although these were essential for my survival as a kid, they are harmful to me now.

  18. Lori Toupal says:

    I really think it has a lot to do with the type of disability. Physical disabilities and developmental disabilities are one thing. Mental and emotional disabilities are something entirely different. Having raised children with both, I can tell you that the mental and emotional type are extremely hard on all of the other family members. I know that dealing with physical disabilities, as well as developmental disabilities can also be stressful, of course, but dealing with a child who is hallucinating or one that is viciously cruel to their siblings is a special kind of hell on earth. I and both of my normally developing kids were all diagnosed with PTSD because of it. Problem is, it doesn’t just go away when they grow up, so you have to continue to deal with it forever.

  19. Kel Mikel says:

    I agree with Mary. My brother has a disabled son (cerebral palsy) and his youngest daughter was saddled with a lot of responsibility where he was concerned. ..which she gladly accepted at an early age. She is one of the most empathetic, kind and caring young women I’ve ever had the pleasure to know and is now in college to become a nurse. Her brother is struggling fiercely. ..he is no longer “in the spotlight” and finding it hard to do things for himself in his everyday life. He walks with crutches, and his mind is brilliant. .but he is so used to having things done for him that he can’t cope. So a word of caution…if you are raising a mildly disabled child remember these two things: keep them OUT of the limelight (ie:people constantly wanting to do human interest stories), and raise them to do what they are physically able to do for themselves.

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