Disabled children and their non-disabled siblings

Disabled children and their non-disabled siblings

Textor, M.R. 2013
Disabled children and their non-disabled siblings
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Disabled children and their non-disabled siblings

Martin R. Textor

Over the past few decades, more and more disabled children have been admitted to daycare centers – first and foremost in integrative kindergartens, then mostly through individual integration. With the legal right to a childcare place from the age of one, more one- and two-year-olds with disabilities will be supported in crèches in the future. In addition, more and more schoolchildren with disabilities will be looked after in childcare centers – due to the legal and political stipulations of inclusion in schools. Many disabled children will of course also attend day care centers with a wide age mix.

This article is not about the curative and special educational needs of children with disabilities, but about their mental health. The situation of non-disabled siblings is also discussed. They have always been looked after in day care centers, but only a part of the educators is aware of the special needs of these children.

Dealing with your own disability

According to Lavin and Sproedt (2004), children up to four years of age still suffer relatively little from their disabilities. In the case of physical disabilities and chronic illnesses in particular, they noticed early on that something was wrong with them, as they were repeatedly presented to doctors, hospitalized and subjected to special therapies. If they get together a lot with healthy peers, they would already develop feelings of inferiority when they realize that they cannot keep up with them.

In pre-school age, children gain clearer ideas about their disabilities (Lavin / Sproedt 2004). They are becoming more and more aware that they do not really fit the other children and that they are impaired in certain areas by their disabilities. Some children judge anger over her "Be different" against their parents and blame them.

According to Lavin and Sproedt (2004), different coping mechanisms differentiate in pre-school and especially in (primary) school age: Some children with disabilities or chronic diseases would "fighters natures" develop. Some would become aggressive and others would tease, mock or hit children. Some children would be more passive and intimidated, others traumatized and scared. A particularly problematic situation arises when disabled children find themselves rejected by their peers and other people: "The children often feel like victims and try to ward off others, protect themselves or get compassion. Sometimes they use their symptoms to manipulate and control their world, perhaps to avoid a difficult situation, such as going to school or participating in another group activity" (Lavin / Sproedt 2004, p. 21). Occasionally they would also create a fantasy world with imaginary people and other beings who are always present for them and with whom they speak.

Educators therefore not only need the curative education skills relevant for dealing with the disability of the respective child, but also have to recognize their psychological coping mechanism and react accordingly. For example, they can

  • a child who plays a lot by himself because he feels rejected by the others, try to integrate into small groups during the free play time. Even if they play with him at first, other children will soon join them.
  • repeatedly give an (older) child the opportunity to talk about experiences of discrimination and show empathy for his hurt feelings.
  • Encourage a child to calm himself down at mockery, to ignore a mocking person or a person staring at him, or to assert himself against them by e.g. asks: "Why are you looking at me like that??"
  • Point an aggressive child to his limits – just as they would do with other children with behavioral problems – and talk to him about alternative reactions.
  • To direct a child’s fantasies in different ways and to intensify his relationships with other children.

It is particularly important that educators also perceive the strengths of children with disabilities and emphasize them so that they can develop a positive self-image and self-esteem. Only if they don’t "cared about" or "coddled" become independent, master new challenges and gain confidence from such experiences. In principle, the same rights and obligations, rules and limits should apply to them in the group as to the other children, unless the respective disability imposes restrictions.

The situation of siblings of disabled children

Achilles (2005), Hackenberg (2008) as well as Lavin and Sproedt (2004) make clear in their books that the siblings of disabled children also have special needs and problems. These result from the following family constellations and personal experiences:

  • Siblings are often marginalized or even neglected in their families because the disabled or chronically ill child ties up most of the parents’ time and energy. This way they feel that they are under-regarded, are jealous of the disabled child and angry with their parents.
  • Some siblings perceive their parents’ great burdens and worries and react to them by deliberately deferring their own needs, taking a lot of consideration and trying to solve their own problems. Others ignore the disabled child and go their own way.
  • Some children with disabilities push their siblings to the side by skillfully drawing their parents’ attention and using their need for help to assert their own needs and desires.
  • Some (young) children who feel that parents are not paying enough attention to them because they are concentrating on the disabled sibling are trying to attract their parents’ attention through a pretended illness, injury or behavioral problems.
  • While toddlers are often afraid that they may also become disabled or sick (e.g. through infection or as a punishment for "evil deeds"), often fear (pubescent) school children that they could not find a girlfriend or a boyfriend because of the disabled siblings.
  • Some toddlers blame themselves for the disability of their siblings (magical thinking). Feelings of guilt can also arise if e.g. on "Glasknochen child" suffered a broken bone while playing together.
  • Siblings are often involved in the care and support of a disabled child – but with varying degrees of intensity. Some children also take care of themselves (e.g. out of love or pity), develop a helper syndrome and sacrifice themselves in the care of the disabled sibling. Sometimes they feel responsible for it for a lifetime.
  • Many children experience intrapsychic and interpersonal conflicts when friends, classmates or other people important to them reject or mock their disabled sibling. "Discriminatory experiences can lead to feelings of shame and conflicts of loyalty among siblings who on the one hand feel connected to their disabled brother or sister, but on the other hand also want to ‘belong’ to society" (Hackenberg 2008, p. 87).
  • Some children hate the disabled sibling because of its privileged status or the problems they have with their friends because of it. Especially when they act aggressively towards him or have mocked him, they experience remorse.
  • Some children face particularly high expectations from their parents, which relate to their school and professional career: "A number of siblings feel compelled to provide compensatory special services that compensate parents for disappointments about the limited possibilities of the disabled child" (Hackenberg 2008, p. 102).
  • Many siblings experience material restrictions, since the mothers often gave up their work because of the care of the disabled child, and special benefits for the child often have to be paid from the remaining (low) income.

However, relationships between a disabled or chronically ill child and their siblings are generally more positive, loving and caring than other sibling relationships. Sibling conflicts seem to be relatively rare – on the one hand, the interests of disabled and non-disabled children overlap less, on the other hand, the spheres of life (care facilities, therapeutic services, schools, friends) are more different. However, asymmetrical relationships can arise: While developmental differences between siblings usually decrease with age, they increase with many disabilities. A younger child may overtake a disabled sibling at an early stage and take a dominant position vis-à-vis him.

According to Hackenberg (2008), recent studies show that most siblings of disabled children receive no less attention from their parents than children in other families and mostly develop normally. While many people would benefit from growing up with a disabled or chronically ill sibling because they develop diverse skills, prosocial attitudes (compassion, understanding, tolerance, responsibility, etc.) as well as a high degree of personal maturity, others would have slight adjustment disorders and psychological abnormalities detected. Only a small part of the siblings of disabled children (later) need counseling or psychotherapeutic treatment.

Achilles (2005) and Hackenberg (2008) also describe what it depends on how siblings of disabled children develop – from their own resources such as mental health and self-esteem, from parental care, the relationship of the parents, the life satisfaction of the mother, the quality of the child social network, etc. The type of disability also plays a role: for example, siblings of Down syndrome children would develop better than those of autistic children, since they are for more "embarrassing" Would cause situations in public.

Educators should closely monitor siblings of disabled children and look for signs of problematic reactions to their family situation so that they can be helped at an early stage. Young children in particular often still need information about the disability or chronic illness of their siblings – and the assurance that they are neither responsible nor responsible "infect" can. You can talk to older children about their feelings about the disabled sibling (e.g. jealousy, feelings of guilt, pity, fear). Some then express their anger about it, "that there seems to be a very special bond between the parents and the sick child" (Lavin / Sproedt 2004, p. 65). But stigmatizing reactions from friends, classmates and (un) acquaintances should also be addressed. Here the child not only needs an opportunity to speak, but also (emotional) support in dealing with such experiences.

In development talks in particular, it is important to talk to the parents about their behavior towards the non-disabled child compared to the disabled sibling part, about the involvement of the first-mentioned child in nursing duties and about the sibling relationship. On the one hand, it is about recognizing problematic family constellations and behavior at an early stage, and on the other hand, about taking preventive action – e.g. To make it clear to parents that the siblings of disabled children also need a lot of care and time of undivided attention, that they should not be given too many duties, that they have to be praised for support services at least occasionally and that they need space for their own interests and social relationships , Furthermore, parents should always explain to their children that they love them as much as their disabled siblings, but that they have to spend more time because of their special needs. Educators can also recommend picture and children’s books in which the topic "disability" is treated. Reading or talking about it usually leads to more open parent-child communication.


Achilles, I .:. and nobody cares about me! The situation of siblings of disabled and chronically ill children. Munich, Basel: Ernst Reinhardt, 4th ed. 2005

Hackenberg, W .: Siblings of people with disabilities. Development, risks, opportunities. Munich, Basel: Ernst Reinhardt 2008

Lavin, J.L./Sproedt, C. (ed.): Special children need special parents. Disabled or chronically ill: How to protect and support your child. Ratingen: Oberstebrink 2004


Dr. Martin R. Textor studied pedagogy, counseling and social work at the universities of Würzburg, Albany, N.Y., and Cape Town. He worked for 20 years as a research assistant at the State Institute for Early Education in Munich. From 2006 to 2018, he and his wife headed the Institute for Pedagogy and Future Research (IPZF) in Würzburg. He is the author or editor of 45 books and has published 770 specialist articles in magazines and on the Internet.
Homepage: https://www.ipzf.de
Autobiography at http://www.martin-textor.de

In: Martin R. Textor / Antje Bostelmann (ed.): The Kita Guide.

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