Supporting your sibling child with their feelings
Acknowledging your sibling child's feelings about their disabled brother or sister, or about family life and school, is one of the most important things you can do to support them. You may not be able to change what is happening at home, but you can respond to how your child feels about things in a way that makes them feel you really care and understand.
Acknowledge your sibling child’s feelings
As a parent your life is busy and it can take time to listen carefully, however it really makes a very positive difference to your relationship with your sibling child.
Siblings’ complaints and upsets
It is a normal part of family life for siblings to get angry, sad or worried about things that happen. When a sibling tells you about one of these things this is an opportunity for you to listen to their feelings.
What to avoid with feelings
We will use the example here of a sibling coming indoors to say “He’s broken the swingball.” If you want your sibling child to share their feelings with you, then avoid these:
Blaming – e.g. “Why didn’t you call me outside when this was happening”
If the sibling has done something to cause the problem, it is better to talk about helpful strategies at another time – not when the sibling is upset or angry.
Solving – e.g. “Don’t worry, we can buy you a new one”
It is best to discuss a solution to the problem at another time. Although the problem may be easy to sort out, your sibling child still needs to have their feelings acknowledged.
Explaining – e.g. “He can’t help it because he’s got a learning disability”
Siblings particularly dislike it when parents explain away the problem because of the disability or illness. Most siblings already know why the problem has happened but that does not change the fact that they feel upset or angry.
How to acknowledge feelings
Only look at ways to deal with the issue or problem once you have taken time to acknowledge your sibling child’s feelings, and when your sibling child is feeling calm again. Take these steps to acknowledge siblings’ feelings:
Listen to the feelings behind the words
What does your child’s body language and tone of voice tell you about what they are feeling. Are they sad, angry, resentful, fed up, jealous, bored, frightened, worried? If your sibling child is crying and says “He’s broken the swingball”, then it’s likely that they feel sad.
Name the feeling
Say what you think they are feeling and check that you have got it right: “Are you feeling sad that your brother broke your game?”
Acknowledge the feeling
Acknowledge the feeling with an empathic response: “I see. That must be very upsetting. I know that it’s your favourite game”.
Ask your child to tell you more about what happened, and continue to give an empathic response. “Tell me what happened with the swingball”
Give your child their wish in fantasy
“I wish I could make the swingball back to the way it was before” or “I wish your brother was able understand that games need to be treated carefully”
Your sibling child may still feel the upset or anger strongly for a while. You can encourage them to use some of the tips for dealing with feelings on YoungSibs.
For more ideas on acknowledging children’s feelings a really useful book is How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
‘I can identify what he’s feeling much easier now and reflecting his feelings has helped him admit that he sometimes feels jealous of his sister… He’s opened up more, he talks to me now when he feels upset which makes it easier to support him.’
Helping your sibling child deal with worry
All children worry from time about things in their life, and some children worry more than others. Siblings can worry about things like their brother or sister’s health, about bringing other children home, about not doing well at school, and many other things. If worries are not dealt with they tend to grow bigger and siblings become more anxious about them. Here are some strategies to help siblings deal with their worries.
Make a worry box
Decorate a small box with a lid. This can be a fun craft activity in itself. The box can be covered in anything from football stickers to glitter and feathers. Taking time to make it look right will help your child feel that it has a special purpose. Put a tiny notepad with easily removable pages and a pen into the box.
When a worry or troubling thought comes into their mind, siblings can write it down on a piece of paper and put it in the box. At the end of the day they can take them out and talk about them with you. If it is hard to do this each day, then make a date on the calendar that week when you can give it your time and attention. Make sure you are not interrupted when you talk to your sibling child.
Sort out the worries together into:
Things we can’t change– for example, being worried about the fact that their brother or sister has autism.
Things we can change– for example, being worried about getting into trouble at school about homework not being done.
Take action on the worries
Things we can’t change – With these you need to acknowledge the worry. Your sibling child may need more information from you about why this is something that can’t be changed. Then ask the sibling to put the worry in the bin.
Things we can change – With these you need to acknowledge the worry and discuss who is the best person to take action on the worry – you, the sibling or someone else like a teacher? For example, you can send a letter to school explaining about the homework. Sometimes the sibling needs to take action, for example if he/she is worried that they shouted at their brother or sister, they can say sorry or give them a hug. When the worry is sorted it can go in the bin.
Dividing worries into these two categories allows siblings to let go of those things no-one can change and to take action on the things that can be changed. This could be something you could role model for your sibling child by doing it too.
Use worry dolls
Another lovely activity to help with worries is to use Guatemalan worry dolls. They are tiny little dolls that come in a box or a bag and can bought in many fair-trade shops or online.
NB The dolls are very tiny so you will need to make sure they are safe for all of your children to have around.
The instructions with them say ‘If you have a problem, then share it with a worry doll. Before going to bed, tell one worry to each doll, then place them beneath your pillow. Whilst you sleep, the dolls will take your worries away!’
Young children really like using these. Some older children like to write their worries down at night instead, in a diary
Read a book about worries
A really great storybook book to use with children 4 – 8 years is The Huge Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside. It helps young children understand how worries can get bigger unless we tell other people about them and start sorting them out.
‘As parents we have now introduced the worry box so that any worries can be passed on to us to relieve any of his burden.’
Helping your sibling child deal with anger
Siblings are just like all other people – they get angry about things. Children express anger in different ways – some feel angry inside whilst others have huge outbursts of rage. Children’s age and developmental stage has an impact on anger, with younger children tending to have less understanding of their own anger. Unmanaged anger causes stress and siblings often need to be taught how to manage it. These are some tips for helping your child:
Use the word angry
Give labels to feelings when you are with your child. Use the words ‘Are you angry about that?’ Label feelings when you are talking about your own experiences. Rather than saying ‘the nurse was really nasty’, own your own feelings and say ‘I was angry because the nurse left us waiting for an hour’.
Acknowledge feelings of anger
Let siblings know it is OK to feel angry, that it is a normal and acceptable emotion. There is nothing wrong or shameful about it. What matters is how someone acts on it. Be very clear about what behaviour is not acceptable i.e. hitting someone else.
Help siblings identify the triggers for anger
This is best done some time after the sibling has been angry. During the period of feeling angry, which can go on for up to an hour, people are not able to think clearly. Later in the day or the following day, talk to the sibling about what set off the feelings of anger. What happened just before he or she felt angry? Is this something that happens at other times? Do not make any judgments of your child at this time otherwise the conversation will come to an end. You are getting the sibling to reflect on what happened so that he or she will recognise what is happening in a similar situation.
Triggers for anger in siblings
- Conflict around belongings or space such as the other child interfering with their things or coming into their room all the time
- Being teased or bullied by the other child
- Being hit or hurt by the other child
- Being asked to do things they don’t want to do such as looking after the other child or helping with care tasks
- Not being able to do some things they want to do, such as going swimming as a family
- Being rejected or ignored by the other child, as often happens if the other child has autism
- Not getting attention from a parent when it is needed
Make a list of the warning signs of approaching anger, such as heart beating faster, clenching fists, getting hot, tense arms and legs..
Techniques for dealing with anger
Get a notebook for your sibling child to write down or draw ways of dealing with anger. Here are some ideas to discuss together but help your child find what works best for him or her.
These can help siblings deal with anger once it has started:
- Physical activity – Having a run or a walk, playing a ball game, dancing to some loud music, skipping
- Talking to someone about feeling angry helps – a parent, pet, friend or cuddly toy! Or telling it to a diary or drawing the anger
- Asking for help – Your sibling child could ask a parent or friend to help them get calm again
Remember, it can take up to an hour for the body’s responses to settle down again after an angry outburst, so allow enough time for this before talking about the issues.
These can help prevent the anger when the sibling has recognised a trigger:
- Calming things – Having a soak in the bath and playing with bath toys, soothing music, counting backwards from 30, lying on their back on the floor and breathing slowly and deeply..
- Counting to 10 and breathing slowly and deeply, going into another room, telling you about it, or using
- Going into another room
- Being able to tell a parent about it
- Self talking – ‘I can handle this’ ‘I can stay calm’ ‘Stop and count to 10’ ‘Walk into the kitchen’
Role model managing your own anger
Take responsibility for your own anger and develop strategies for yourself in managing it. Talk to your child about how you manage your anger and what techniques you have.
Helping your sibling child deal with embarrassment
Many siblings feel embarrassed by their brother or sister, and this is most likely when they are in a public place. For younger children this can be when their brother or sister screams, or pulls something down, or when they see people staring. For teenage siblings, it doesn’t take much for them to feel embarrassed, maybe feeling embarrassed about their brother or sister at home as well as in public. They may feel uncomfortable about friends seeing disability equipment or being present when an older child is being fed by a parent, for example.
For some children, being seen to be different is very uncomfortable indeed. Think back to when you were younger, and remember what it was like to feel embarrassed as a child. It can help to be reminded of just how awful embarrassment is. This will help you see your child’s viewpoint.
Try out some of these strategies for being in a public place:
Being a role model
Think about how you feel when people stare. Are you comfortable with that or do you feel embarrassed too? If you tend to feel very uncomfortable when you are out, your children are likely to pick this up from you. What can you do to feel more easygoing about being out with your children? Do you do anything when you are out that increases your sibling child’s embarrassment – like shouting at people who stare or complaining loudly to the manager? If so, what could you change about the way you deal with things?
Talking about embarrassment
Let your sibling child know that embarrassment is a normal feeling and that you know it is uncomfortable. Talk about the situations that cause embarrassment and if there are things he or she would like you to do. Ask your sibling child to tell you if they think people are staring – it helps to be able to tell someone.
Informing the public about the disabilty
Explain to your sibling child that people do stare, and in most cases are curious rather than rude or mean. Some families have a card with some information about the disability on it, which they give to people who ask questions or make inappropriate comments. This can be helpful with conditions where there is challenging behaviour.
Focusing on the good stuff
Tell siblings that it helps to think about the good things that are happening and to really focus on those – like the shops, the activity, the people you are with, the food…
Bringing a friend
Sometimes it can help a sibling to be able to bring a supportive friend when you go out – so they feel that at least someone else understands. This can also mean that if your disabled child has a seizure or starts crying loudly, your sibling child and their friend can do a bit of window shopping together until things have settled down.
Choice about going out
There may be times when your can give your sibling child a choice about whether they come out or stay at home or with a friend.