Some children display more problematic behavior or generally need more attention and care than others. This can be temporary, like in the case of a sudden severe illness that might be cured or at least manageable after some time. Or it can be long-term, for example when a child has a disability, or a developmental disorder like autism. Whatever the reason and duration, this impacts the child’s family dynamics which then impact, additionally to the problem of the child itself, also the life of their siblings.
Resulting family dynamics
Generally, the parents of such children are at risk of experiencing higher stress levels and mental health problems due to the problem of the child. They might get very busy with taking care of the different tasks that come with it. This can result in them not having enough time to fully support the siblings. They might for example forget to just check in on how their other child’s day is going and how they are feeling. This can lead to the sibling feeling jealous and not as important anymore, which might lead to them developing a habit of putting their needs below others. Additionally, in some scenarios the parents might have to pay for additional expenses that are not covered by insurance. This adds onto the stress as they might need to find means of earning more money to cover those possibly costly expenses.
Impact on the siblings
The impact on the siblings depends on a variety of factors that depend on the specific situation and problem the child has. How well are the parents able to cope with the additional stress and still fully take care of the sibling? Is the sibling maybe more directly impacted by the problematic, maybe even traumatizing behavior of the child itself?
Children with intellectual disabilities
For children that have siblings with intellectual disabilities, it was found that the wellbeing of the family members is usually interconnected. The distress the mother experiences is associated with higher levels of behavior problems of the siblings. However, parents perceive both benefits as well as drawbacks for siblings of children with intellectual disabilities. On the one hand, they might face issues like dealing with peer acceptance of their sibling, or the consequences of the financial burden and time constraints the parents experience. They might also need to take on tasks that other children of their age don’t have to, like caring for their siblings and worrying for them. This on the other hand can lead to them being mature from a very young age, as well as caring, compassionate, open-minded, and patient. They also might develop an appreciation for their own life and health.
Children with severe illnesses
If a child receives a diagnosis for a severe illness, like cancer , this also has a huge impact on the family dynamics. This is something the sibling needs to adapt to. They might feel a loss of safety due to the sudden loss of support as their parents worry and need to focus more of their attention on their siblings now. Additionally, they might have to deal with potentially serious issues like the meaning of cancer at a very young age.
Siblings of children who receive an autism diagnosis have a higher chance to have poor sibling relationships, especially if the child shows significant behavior problems. They are also more at risk to develop behavioral and emotional problems and to have difficulties with adjusting. Usually the actual difference to other children is not very high though, as their scores are below the abnormal clinical level. However, for siblings with Broad Autism Phenotype features it is important to preventively develop social skills and stress coping skills.
There are various other possible scenarios in which a child might need more attention than usual. All in all, siblings of problem children live in special family dynamics. They can develop both positive and negative traits and a variety of feelings towards the situation.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Olivia Szewczykowski is currently studying psychology in Graz, Austria and interning for Willingness. She is interested in various topics regarding relationships, sex and family dynamics.
Griffith, G. M., Hastings, R. P., & Petalas, M. A. (2014). Brief Report: Fathers’ and Mothers’ Ratings of Behavioral and Emotional Problems in Siblings of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(5), 1230–1235. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-013-1969-6
Long, K. A., Marsland, A. L., Wright, A., & Hinds, P. (2015). Creating a Tenuous Balance: Siblings’ Experience of a Brother’s or Sister’s Childhood Cancer Diagnosis. Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing, 32(1), 21–31. https://doi.org/10.1177/1043454214555194
Mulroy, S., Robertson, L., Aiberti, K., Leonard, H., & Bower, C. (2008). The impact of having a sibling with an intellectual disability: Parental perspectives in two disorders. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 52(3), 216–229. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2788.2007.01005.x
Petalas, M. A., Hastings, R. P., Nash, S., Hall, L. M., Joannidi, H., & Dowey, A. (2012). Psychological adjustment and sibling relationships in siblings of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Environmental stressors and the Broad Autism Phenotype. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(1), 546–555. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2011.07.015