The family dynamic is one of the most important aspects of our society. Under the best of circumstances it is a delicate balance, however, when one of the members is dealing with an intellectual challenge it can alter the structure significantly. It is firmly established that the parental relationship is crucial in the life of any child, and the support and encouragement of all family members is essential in building self-confidence and self-esteem. However, when there is a disability involved, the bond between siblings becomes extraordinarily important.
Initially that bond can be fragile and strained. Children who have a brother or sister with a developmental disability are often given additional responsibilities that their peers do not have. They sometimes, out of necessity, receive less attention due to the demands placed on the parents to care for the intellectual and physical needs of a child who has serious issues that require their focus. The other children in the family are sometimes called upon to make sacrifices and compromises. They are often expected to be a role model and to set an example, whether they want to or not. Their wants, needs and desires sometimes have to take second place to the medical considerations of their brother or sister.
All of these factors can cause friction to develop. The inevitable sibling rivalry that occurs in all families can become more pronounced. Tensions are heightened as everyone feels the added pressures of raising a child with a developmental disability. This can cause jealousy and resentment, especially in younger children.
But as they get older, they begin to understand why their family frequently deals with certain situations that others don’t experience. Often they become very protective of their sibling with a disability. They become helpers and they assist in a variety of ways that ease the responsibilities that were previously handled exclusively by their parents.
There is a strong emotional component to having a family member with an intellectual challenge. How does a younger sibling feel when they realize they have passed their brother or sister in reading skills, math skills, and vocabulary? It happens gradually but there is a point when it becomes evident to them that they have progressed beyond their sibling. Although it may not make sense to them at first, they soon discover that it does not affect their love and devotion to that person.
Unfortunately, when someone grows up with a brother or sister with an intellectual challenge they are sometimes exposed to the bias and narrow mindedness that people can have towards individuals with disabilities. These misconceptions are typically based on ignorance and a rush to judgment that is not based on facts. The misunderstanding, ridicule and rejection that a person with a disability can be subjected to only draws them closer to their sibling.
Throughout their lives, brothers and sisters are connected in a way that helps to define them as human beings. There is an unshakable bond that develops as they experience the good and bad in life together. For most of us, relationships come and go. People enter our lives, stay for a while and then, for whatever reason, they move on. But having a brother or sister lasts for a lifetime. No matter what happens, being a sibling never ends. That is why this particular relationship is so important to a person with a developmental disability. It offers stability and predictability. It creates a safety net of support that allows an individual to be themselves. It provides them with a sense of self-worth because they are treated as an equal.
For people who grow up in families where there are difficult challenges, their lives are altered in unexpected ways. Certainly there are frustrations and disappointments. That is to be expected anytime human beings are together under one roof. But there is also a profound depth of feeling that develops when one of them requires additional patience and understanding. It creates a situation where acceptance occurs without judgment.
Siblings of those with developmental disabilities have a personal perspective on the struggles and victories of their brother or sister. They see the concentration and perseverance that is required to perform certain tasks. They witness the tenacity that a person demonstrates as they battle challenges that could hold them back if they did not have the will and determination to overcome them. They see the joy and frustration that are equal parts of the learning experience.
Whether or not their sibling succeeds or fails at a particular endeavor, they are able to appreciate the effort that went into the attempt. If their brother or sister is successful, they share the pride in their accomplishment. And if they fail, they are there to support them and to encourage them to keep trying. They believe in their sibling, even when no one else does. They see them as complete human beings with the same rights as anyone else. They fight for their inclusion in society, and they make sure that their brother or sister is treated with dignity and respect.
For a person with an intellectual challenge, their siblings are among the most important people in their lives. They are their defenders, advocates and, in some cases, their legal guardians. For many of them they are the best friends they will ever have. They are the ones they look up to. They are the ones that they trust. They are the ones they give their hearts to.
Men and Women who grow up in families where there is a sibling with a developmental disability, experience a form of unconditional love that lasts a lifetime.