The sibling narrative is often the untold narrative.
When thinking about children and young people struggling with their mental health and emotional wellbeing, or have special educational needs or are neurodiverse with challenging and complex needs the focus is, understandably, around the child facing the challenges.
There are often other children in families, schools and communities who are deeply affected in both overt and covert ways, whose experiences may not be recognised either by themselves or by others. If they are recognised there may be differing reactions, that may be helpful or unhelpful. They might be acknowledged in principle and then quickly forgotten or brushed aside.
This is especially true for siblings. There is often resistance to thinking about the impact on brothers and sisters. Advocates of this resistance believe that the guilt and shame that can be stirred up by such conversations for the family and the child/ young person who is suffering the most, mean this is counter-productive to discuss. Some prefer the positive narratives around resilience and qualities gained, which is one potential outcome. As a highly sensitive topic it is true that discussions need to be managed with respect, empathy, sensitivity, but from the point of view of the mental health and wellbeing of the siblings, it is equally important they are not shut down to save the complex feelings it might raise in others. Siblings often hold their own complex feelings about their situation and may not have a place to express these.
Every sibling experience will be different and dependant on a number of factors. It is important to listen deeply to each perspective and experiences without jumping to conclusions about what they have experienced and how it has affected them. Sometimes adults can be quick to superimpose a narrative we find more comfortable or to try and justify the reasons for decisions made, that may have not served the siblings needs. The siblings narrative may not be the same as narratives given by other significant adults. They may have never had a chance to express their own and feel uncertain of what to say, how to say it, feel guilty and fear the repercussions if they do.
To be a sibling of a child/young person with mental health issues, special educational needs or who is neurodiverse may have no impact on the sibling. Equally, it may have a significant impact for better and for worse. Siblings live in the same house and share the same parents. They may have additional responsibilities that other children do not have, which might make them a young carer. Families vary in whether they acknowledge this for the siblings for a variety of reasons. If things are extremely challenging at home, siblings may witness things that are extremely distressing, disturbing, or simply do not make sense to them. They also witness their parents trying to cope as best they can, often in very difficult and complex circumstances. They may have to bystand, during which they may feel any number of feelings from responsibility, to frustration, fear and resentment. They may feel that their own needs and feelings are invalid and insignificant in comparison and they may learn to mask these to try to protect their family. This might be to the extent where they shut them down completely.
Siblings may be a recipient of either physical or verbal attacks, which they may or may not be protected from. This can be made worse if they are encouraged not to talk about it or led to believe it is just something they must put up with, or something they should have prevented. Unless they confide in somebody it may be difficult to know what they are experiencing and how it is affecting them. This may be due to feelings of loyalty to their sibling and family. It may be something they have been told not to talk about, due to either their parents or their own fears and fantasies about what might happen if they do. It might be the parents and child feel tremendous shame. They may have had experiences of people being judgemental or unhelpful. They may simply see their situation as normal or may be dissociated from their feelings around it. There may also be divided loyalties creating an internal conflict of which the result is silence. Alternatively, they may enjoy and value that time out of the house where they push what goes on at home as far out of their mind as possible and want to keep it that way.
There may be many positive qualities that siblings develop as a result of having a sibling with SEND. These can work for the sibling, but may also work against them in the conflict between self and other.
- Support skills
- Advocacy skills
- Communication skills
Research has shown that siblings are also more likely to report feelings of:
- Depression/ low mood
- Lots of time and attention are often given over to the child who is struggling, depending on what the needs are, often at the expense of siblings.
- There might be disruption to lives because of medical/ therapy appointments/ treatment etc.
- Lots of professionals and meetings involved, possibly coming to the house, which may be dysregulating for siblings.
- Not getting enough quality time with parent/carers
- Parents/ carers being preoccupied with the concerns over the child who is struggling.
- Not having their own needs recognised because they don’t compare to those of their sibling
- No support for schoolwork or academic progress because of the focus on the child who is struggling
- Not feeling able to have friends over or being told they can’t.
- Being stigmatised by association.
- Social exclusion
Siblings are likely to have worse outcomes if they have a significant amount of responsibility as a young carer, with a limited support network and/ or there are significant behavioural issues, from which they are not adequately protected. (Hastings, 2007, Neece et al, 2010)
Sometimes there can also be a family dynamic that gets created where siblings activities with peers or opportunities are curtailed because of the child who is struggling, for whom this activity might not be accessible or requires planning and time which may not be compatible with a child with unpredictable needs. It may be the parents want the sibling to be at home to help them. Sometimes the child who is struggling is triggered by their siblings social life beyond the home and this may exacerbate challenging behaviours to the point where the family goes for the path of least resistance, which can be devastating for a sibling in terms of their support network.
Sometimes siblings can take a very mature view on this and are very accommodating to the needs of the sibling and struggles of the parents. Siblings may be conditioned to believe that their needs and wants should come second, or are not important at all. They might learn to suppress their feelings and needs to accommodate the parent, as they might be very aware that their parents are under pressure and not want to add to this.
This can cause additional challenges for siblings because:
- This behavioural adaptation is often socially sanctioned and viewed as desirable, mature and they may be validated for it.
- This can reinforce the belief that they are only acceptable if they are accommodating others needs.
- It may shrink their social circle and lead to isolation and being left out especially if all their friends are doing it but they can’t/ not allowed
- They may have a heightened sense of responsibility towards their sibling, which can be a huge pressure.
- The school, parents and society may heap additional responsibility and pressure on siblings, whilst simultaneously undermining their needs, which can lead to a sense of loss of self, or a barrier to self-development
- They may have additional worries and anxieties from home in school that may not be acknowledged.
- They may feel as though they can’t have any issues or problems.
Sometimes siblings become so adept at accommodating the different needs of their sibling and parents because of the additional SEND needs that their development of their own sense of self can be completely altered.
Many siblings report feeling they can only present a certain face to the world.This is partly because they have been conditioned to meet the needs and expectations of others around them and may have been validated and rewarded for it.They may worry about burdening others with their own needs.
It can be difficult for adults in the family to acknowledge siblings unmet needs. It is rare a family means to neglect need, and most are doing the very best they can, often in extremely challenging circumstances. They may have to prioritise out of necessity. As practitioners it can be easy to judge how a family is managing and what we perceive would be a better way, with the privilege of not being in that situation. Trying to advocate for a sibling when we know the challenges a family are facing, can be difficult and sensitive.
We might need to consider the following points:
- What are the expectations placed on the sibling?
- How are they coping with these?
- How is the whole family coping with the challenges?
- What is the family support network like and who is important to the siblings in particular?
- Does the sibling have their own support network in their own right?
- What are the specific needs in the household and how do they manifest, from the POV of the sibling?
- What are the family resources like?
- What are the family attitudes and expectations towards the sibling and the situation?
- Are the family able to acknowledge if the sibling is a young carer or not?
- Is the sibling in danger of being harmed directly due to challenging behaviour?
- What is the impact of being a sibling in the family on their mental health and emotional wellbeing?
- How do they present to the world?
- What are their coping mechanisms?
- What do they want and need?
- What do they think would be most helpful to support them?
It is very important that siblings can access support if they need it and have practitioners who understand the complexity of their lives and lived experiences as a person in their own right, beyond and in addition to being the sibling of another child who is struggling.
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