Podcast Episode 06. Sibling relationships are never easy, especially if one sibling has additional needs. This week I talk to Julie, a mother of 2 children, about her experiences and the challenges. She talks about the tactics she uses to make family life work for everyone and her ideas for creating a sibling bond through shared activities. She also explains why she believes it’s important to manage family expectations when it comes to being a carer for a sibling with additional needs once parents are no longer around. If your children are struggling with being a sibling, then Julie has some ideas that might resonate with you and your family dynamics.
[.35] – All about Julie and her family
[1.20] – Sibling relationships and trying to manage it
[2.30] – Trying to create empathy between siblings
[4.20] – Managing expectations about responsibilities towards your siblings
[6.15] – How social situations can cause friction between siblings
[8.00] – What is a normal sibling relationship?
[10.00] – The benefits of having a sibling in helping develop social skills
[11.00] – What the future sibling relationship might be like
[11.45] – How socialising at home helps build the sibling relationship
[12.30] – Bringing siblings closer thorough shared projects or tasks
Sibling rivalry is normal
Find projects or tasks sibling can work on together
Reassure siblings that while they are not expected to be responsible for their sibling they do have responsibilities as a sibling.
DEBRA: This week we’re talking to Julie who has a son with additional needs who has an older sister. So, this week we’re talking about sibling relationships and some of the challenges and strategies that we can use to help us manage that relationship. Welcome, Julie.
JULIE: Thank you.
DEBRA: Tell us a little bit about your background.
JULIE: I am of a mom of these two kids. I’m an accountant by training. I work part time now and do voluntary work. My husband is also an accountant and he does some consulting work now.
DEBRA: And your children?
JULIE: My son is going to be fourteen next week and my daughter will be sixteen in May so we are right smack dab in the middle of the lovely teenage angst and all the joy and happiness that that brings.
DEBRA: And their relationship, what’s their relationship like as siblings?
JULIE: It is alternatively quite fraught and quite typical of siblings; angry and shouty and “I will poke you and you will scream” and we’ll both say “Mom!!” like it was the other one’s faults. But occasionally, Felicity does really look after him and she really takes the time to think about his situation and how it might be harder for him, very occasionally. It’s happening a little bit more maybe as she grows up.
DEBRA: And how do you try to manage that relationship? Have you spoken to her for example about what he needs?
JULIE: Yes. I have, I’m not sure she’s actually ever heard those things. It works better when she’s the one who’s approached me to say, “He’s driving me crazy. He’s such a weirdo. This is so hard” because then she’s focused on the issue at hand and wants to have some dialogue and maybe engage about it. And when she’s in that place, we can have some dialogue about “Yes, it is really hard sometimes to be in a family with him. It is. But sometimes it’s hard to be in a family with me and sometimes it’s hard to be a family with you. That’s part of the deal is you get the person warts and all. Some people’s warts are bigger than others and some people are harder to manage.”
We talk about how hard things are for him and trying to imagine that that every social situation is a little bit confusing or difficult, hard you don’t have the right resources or know exactly how you’re supposed to act and I think she gets that now having been a teenager and feeling a little bit of that herself sometimes. She’s always been quite a confident kid so maybe before that didn’t really get it but every teenager has those feelings and so now, I think she may be having a bigger appreciation for him.
DEBRA: So, tapping into the empathy is quite useful?
JULIE: We’re finally getting there.
DEBRA: And what about him, do you talk to him about having a sibling?
JULIE: Yes, I’ve said to both my kids because as I’m one of five, I feel their sibling relationship is more important because there’s only two of them. They only have each other in the world and I think you know when Lawrence and I are gone, really,
it is your siblings who are the ones who you can a hundred percent count on, who will turn up at your bedside if you get knocked down by a car and have to go to hospital. They’re the only people that turn out.
I have spoken to both of them about “Yes, you can hate her today but still she’s really the most important person or he’s really the most important person in your life right now” and that they should really be able to rely on each other when things are difficult.
DEBRA: Do you think that they understand that? Does he understand that?
JULIE: She does understand it but the downside of that is “I’m the one who’s going to have to have a really good job to make loads of money to look after him and be responsible for him (which isn’t great) but is possibly true”. So that’s a big weight to carry on your fifteen-year-old shoulders. Does he understand it? He knows she’s important to him. I’m not sure he knows how important yet.
DEBRA: Do you think she feels that there’s a weight on her shoulders?
JULIE: I do, yes.
DEBRA: How do you deal with that?
JULIE: I try and tell her that he is likely to be an independent person and that as he’s making progress through the years that it’s she can see that that’s more likely and also that dad and I are going to kind of abandoned him to her and we have things in place and we’re trying to do some planning for those things as well.
DEBRA: But do you think she still feels that responsibility? Do you think that’s an older sibling or do you think that would happen as a sibling?
JULIE: I think it’s a first kid thing that you feel that you are ‘I’m a first kid’. You feel responsible for everybody and everything. That’s part of the way I was raised and probably have damaged her as well by passing on that first sibling responsibility.
DEBRA: You think though that that’s also because he does have additional needs, does she feel the added that responsibility?
JULIE: Yes, she definitely does.
DEBRA: You think she talks to friends or is that sort of something that stays inside the family?
JULIE: I don’t think she’s ever spoken to anybody about it and if she would have, it would have been the siblings of other children who have special needs who she’s met through activities at school because they might understand. They might get what she’s talking about. I’m not sure she’d be brave enough to have that conversation with her mainstream friends who have mainstream siblings.
I think it’s too risky for her. I don’t think she’s probably ever had that conversation with anybody but me and her dad. So that makes it even scarier because then you haven’t shared it out there, it’s just your own worrying that you keep to yourself.
DEBRA: And it’s only a small group of people that know so the solution side…
JULIE: And nobody can say “Well I would support you in that” because you don’t tell them that you need any support for that potential worry.
DEBRA: So, their relationship, can you give me some examples of when it’s been particularly challenging? What kind of things make it challenging situations that seem to bring out (I don’t want to say the worst in them) but…?
JULIE: Social situations where either of them have a group of friends over in the other one doesn’t. It’s not great because my son will be too invasive of my daughter and her friends, doesn’t give them enough space. He’s younger and cute which is okay to hang around for five or ten minutes and more than that he starts to get annoying and he doesn’t really understand when he starts to get annoying that he should just leave and then it’s much nicer for the older girls to think he’s young and cute rather than annoying and a pain.
DEBRA: But he doesn’t know when to stop?
JULIE: Not quite. He enjoys the social company. I mean they’re beautiful older girls so he wants to be in the group and participate but I think regardless of his special needs because he’s two years younger and a boy, they don’t really want anything to do with him particularly. I’d say the same is true when he has his friends over, she wants to get him back for that. So, she’ll hang around a little bit too long. And part of that is normal. Every sibling does that. My siblings did that to me. I don’t remember doing it so much to them but that’s probably beauty of older age.
DEBRA: A selective memory.
JULIE: That is probably a selective memory. And so, then you have to just remind yourself that sibling rivalry is normal.
DEBRA: But does it manifest itself in a sort of more complicated way because he perhaps doesn’t take the….
JULIE: Social cues. Yes, that an average fourteen-year-old boy would. It does make it harder for her and him.
DEBRA: Do you think there’s a element of the embarrassment when he behaves in certain ways?
JULIE: Yes, there’s an element of embarrassment even when no one else is around and it’s difficult. I don’t know the right thing to do. I used to make her not say “You weirdo, you freak” or say she was sorry when she did it and I think about all the names that I called my siblings and my sisters, my best friend now. So really, I think again letting some of that go and knowing that it’s just a normal part of sibling relationships is to call your siblings some names within reason is just a normal part of growing up as a sibling.
DEBRA: She’s training him as she would a brother who’s incredibly annoying right.
JULIE: Right, because he is.
DEBRA: That’s regardless of the special needs. Do you think sometimes that that gets mixed up then? That people often say siblings don’t get along because they’ve got a sibling with additional needs? I think sometimes that’s just general teenage angst, things like that.
JULIE: Yes. I see most of their behavior as quite normal. What I experienced as a sibling. The bit that I see that is different is she really has a super caring soft spot for him that I don’t remember having at sixteen. It is the most incredibly selfish part of your life where everything is about you and still, she helps him to do things and she supports him. Because he’s not a threat to her; he is not academically gonna be better than her, he’s not going to have more friends than her and so that part of the sibling relationship is very different. In that way, she is really loving. She doesn’t show it very many times but in certain moments, you can catch her doing some really lovely things; teaching him things, helping him learn things, helping him to do things that he finds difficult and that is different than a typical sibling relationship, I think.
DEBRA: It’s just that need, that sort of extra support. Siblings play an important role, don’t they?
JULIE: They do. She’s the main reason I think Charlie’s social skills are as good as they are because she has set good modeling from the beginning because she’s helped him, to tell him “That’s weird, stop doing that” or “This is what we do now, we don’t hold hands when we’re on the street because people might think we’re boyfriend and girlfriend or they might think that we’re one of those weird families who walks around holding hands all the time. So, when we’re out, we don’t hold hands”. And so, then he knows. That’s kind of the new rule and then that’s fine.
DEBRA: So, he learns a lot of social cues from someone he trusts and puts him in that position and says “This is what you need to be doing”, so that a beneficial part of having an older sibling anyway.
JULIE: Absolutely. She’s really guided him in lots of language and social skills and group activities. Help him out in lots of different ways.
DEBRA: So, would you say they most of the time get along? Or most of the time don’t get along?
JULIE: I’d say right now, most of the time they don’t get along but again I think that’s quite normal. They’re both at very selfish ages. Yes, I think they’ll grow out of it.
DEBRA: What do you think their relationship will be like when they’re older?
JULIE: Again, I think the dynamics of only having one sibling make it such that you have to rely on each other. You don’t really have any other choice. So, I believe that they will be close. I suppose like most relationships between a boy and a girl, she will do more than her fair share of kind of keeping it going and making sure the communication is regular and that the meetings are regular. I think they both quite enjoy each other even when they are annoying each other right now. I think they have enough in common that will hold them together, I hope.
DEBRA: In terms of sort of advice that you might give to parents in similar situations, what some tips that you can give for managing the relationship that worked for you?
JULIE: So, there’s a couple things I can think of. One is we do a lot of socializing in our home because that gives my son the practice with the social skills that he needs in a safe environment and it gives my daughter a chance to socialize with families that are her friends as well and it gives them a chance to show how they developed their relationship in front of other people. So, to have to be polite and nice to each other and not shouting and horrible which I think is good practice. So that kind of ticks that whole inviting people to your house for Sunday lunch or afternoon tea or whatever, ticks a whole lot of boxes for us as far as supporting sibling relationships, supporting social skills, developing relationships with other families and just developing a sense of community, I guess.
And the other thing is to give them projects to do together that we walk away from. So that they have to make dinner together one evening or “Here’s £20, go to the shop, figure out what you’re making, go buy ingredients and then we’ll make it together” sort of thing. So, I guess a little bit like life skills classes. So another example was I’ll give them some money for Christmas or for somebody’s birthday and say “Can you go out together and choose a present together” because that’s practicing the whole going out in the world, compromising with each other, talking about what their ideas about what might be appropriate for that person and I think it works! They are then developing a relationship, independent of us. Kind of monitoring their bickering or how close they are or what their togetherness is. And sometimes they’re just like every other kid. They’re both on their phones next to each other but then if you look at that’s how teenage friends are now and so they don’t have to be kind of engaging holy the whole time. Nobody really does that anymore at that age. Yeah. So that those things seem to work.
DEBRA: It seems like a good idea, doesn’t it? Sort of pushing them together is a wrong word but sort of giving them a task.
JULIE: Creating a project.
DEBRA: It’s a really good advice because then you’re building that relationship as you say rightfully, independently of you which is what I aim anyway. It’s that independence. And long term, that’s something that they can then remember as well. “The time that we did this” which is nice.
JULIE: Yes. It’s good for them to have some memories of things that they’ve done on their own. Holidays are the same sort of thing, aren’t they?
DEBRA: In what sense?
JULIE: You’ve taken them away from their natural environments and you’ve put them in a place where they don’t have loads of other things to rely on apart from each other and you. And if you can take yourself out of that and give them something to do, “Go to the shops and go get us something” or “Go to the hotel lobby” or “Make us breakfast in the morning, figure something out just the two of you” that seems to be kind of another memory bank of “This is what we did together”.
DEBRA: And a nice challenge as well, isn’t it? I suppose just “To show you as parents that we can do it” for both of them which is also what young people like to do, isn’t it? To show that they’re more than capable of doing all the things.
JULIE: They don’t need us anymore.
DEBRA: They don’t their parents at all. Great! Thank you very much, Julie. That was really good useful advice particularly the idea of getting them to work together, be more independent away from the parents. Thank you very much!
JULIE: Pleasure. Thanks.
DEBRA: My key takeaways for this week. Well, it’s hard to be a sibling. Not just to be the sibling of a young person with additional needs. Sibling rivalry is pretty normal. In a way, you just have to let it happen even though sometimes it can be quite difficult. Another takeaway was to look at ways to bring siblings together to make them work together independently of their parents which helps them establish a better relationship and also creates some memories for them particularly when they get older when they reflect on what it was like to have a brother or a sister. Also, another key takeaway was to reassure siblings that they’re not expected to become the parent and to be responsible for that younger person. But they do have the responsibilities that any sibling has towards their brothers or sisters. Thank you for listening.
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