ACA Blog

Nov 20, 2013

Sibling Struggles

There’s no denying that parents of children with autism fight a tough battle – but what about their “typically developing” siblings? Some researchers believe that siblings of children with special needs often possess more patience than usual; however, ending up at this feat is not an easy journey for most of them.  While counseling children living with a sibling with autism, I have found a few issues that commonly come up in conversation.

Issue: “Why can’t we just play together normally?”

Siblings are often our first friends.  It can be confusing for children when their brother or sister refuses to play with them.  Kids with autism generally prefer to engage in parallel play (next to others, but not with them) or alone altogether.  They may become possessive over their games or toys and react aggressively when forced to share.

This can be frustrating for the typical sibling who wants to build a tower of blocks or play “house” together.  In such situations, I have found it helpful to engage in an empathic conversation that focuses on common interests, while also recognizing there is an important difference between the two of them. “Bobby’s not ready to share his games with you yet. It’s okay to be upset, but let’s see if we can find something that you both can have fun doing together.” Point out that there are other activities that can be enjoyed side by side, such as watching a movie, drawing pictures, or going for a walk.

Issue: “Why is he so embarrassing?”

From meltdowns at the mall to tantrums at Target, children with autism may publicly exhibit behaviors far outside the boundaries of appropriate social norms.  While most sibs will eventually outgrow feeling embarrassed about their autistic sister or brother, it helps if they have emotional support along the way from counselors and parents.

In such instances, it’s important to praise the sibling for handling challenging situations maturely – even if they didn’t do it so well.  Parents may want to “team-up” with the sibling and state that they were glad to have him or her by their side for help.

Issue: “Why can’t I hit him back?”

Children with autism sometimes display aggressive behaviors.  When this occurs, parents become consumed with calming the child down and removing hazardous items in the environment that could be thrown or broken.  In the midst of the chaos, it’s possible that a consequence for the actual aggression may be forgotten.  A complaint I consistently hear from siblings is, “If I were to hit someone every time I’m upset, I would get punished. Bobby hits me when we fight but I’m just supposed to walk away? It’s not fair.” Point taken.

In times like this, it may be helpful to focus on the siblings’ strength in a way that changes their role from sibling to role model.  Counselors (and parents) should acknowledge how challenging it is to display that self-control. “Bobby is still working on his self-control, but I know you already do a great job with that. Maybe your appropriate behavior can slowly teach your brother what to do when he’s angry.”  It’s important to note that this conversation should avoid leading children to feel overwhelmed with responsibility.

Dilemma: Should I feel guilty?

As siblings of children with autism mature, they start noticing the deeper differences that set their brother or sister apart from the rest.  It’s possible that they may even develop feelings of guilt overtime.  In my experience, I’ve found that some siblings harbor these feelings out of obligation.  While it’s important to acknowledge being grateful, it may also be constructive for counselors to point out that their siblings are lucky to have a caring brother or sister.  Showing children that they hold a special role in their sibling’s life may mitigate some of the guilty feelings.
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Sadaf Siddiqi is a certified counselor with an interest in mental health research and its application to children and families. Please share your thoughts with her at ssiddi12@jhu.edu.


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