Siblings are likely to have the longest relationship of anyone with their brother or sister with Down syndrome. Siblings frequently also show unique insight – they may, for example, have less difficulty than others in understanding their sibling’s speech, recognise an underlying cause of difficult behaviour or see potential where others have failed to recognise it.
Many parents are initially anxious regarding the effect that having a brother or sister with Down syndrome may have on other children in their family. The fact that a brother or sister has an intellectual disability naturally impacts on the sibling relationship. However, contrary to many parent’s anxieties, in studies siblings have generally reported more positive aspects of having a brother or sister with Down syndrome than negative aspects.
This is not to say that siblings including an individual with Down syndrome always relate positively, or that young people do not have any concerns or difficulties in relation to their sibling who has Down syndrome. But a sibling having Down syndrome is just one of a vast array of factors which impact on a sibling relationship, factors ranging from cultural and family practices to significant events such as parent separation or a death in the family. Parents should keep in mind too that sibling relationships can be a challenge some, if not most, of the time in every family.
Young people will tend to mirror the attitudes of the adults in the family, so the attitude of parents to the disability will be the most significant influence on the way in which a sibling views their brother or sister with Down syndrome. Other children will tend also to take their cue from the attitude shown by the siblings to their brother or sister with Down syndrome.
Siblings provide the range of benefits for a child with Down syndrome that they can in any family – language and role model, childhood companion and later social coach and mentor. Siblings in turn gain widened perspective from the experience of having a brother or sister with Down syndrome.
All sibling relationships go through different stages as children grow and many teenagers are likely to experience a phase in which their sibling causes them embarrassment – parents need to be careful to handle this sensitively and it usually passes with increases in maturity.
Overall, children who have a sibling with Down syndrome, as a group, do not generally have difficulty adjusting to this. Growing up with a sibling with Down syndrome, whilst it will be subject to all the trials and tribulations of any sibling situation, is viewed by the majority of young people who do it as a positive experience.