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The Amazing Role Siblings Play in Disability


My oldest daughter, Addison, had just come home from school. She had barely dropped her backpack when her sister, Emma, who has cerebral palsy, started excitedly telling her about the new therapy gym she went to that day. The more Emma talked, the more Addison’s face dropped. “Why does she get to do fun stuff and I don’t?” she blurted out.

My initial emotion was anger. How could she be so selfish? Didn’t she understand that Emma has to go there to improve? Then, I suddenly saw it through the eyes of a 6-year-old. While she was at school, her sister was swinging on a fun swing and climbing a rock wall. There was a ball pit. There was a zip line! I realized that I had to do something before resentment built in her.

A Different Approach:

I took Addison aside and explained how Emma needed therapy to be fun. She needed to go so she can do all the things we take for granted: walk, run, jump and climb. Then I gave her a secret mission — she could help her sister by being super excited about the new therapy gym. “That way,” I explained, “you are encouraging her to go to therapy, and that will help her.” Her face lit up. She had a job to do!

She ran back into the kitchen and asked Emma to tell her more. “That sounds so fun Emma! You are so lucky!” Emma’s face beamed, as she responded, “I know! I can’t wait to go back!” Addison was so proud of her new role, and Emma couldn’t wait for her next therapy session. It was a double win.

A New Role:

I can be difficult for some siblings to fully understand the disability, or the differences between them and their sibling. It is hard to process why they sometimes get less attention and focus. However, when they become part of the team, it can change the dynamic altogether.

Here are a few simple things you can do help siblings feel included”

1. Involve them in therapy sessions.

When we first started in-home therapy, I made the mistake of occupying Addison in front of the television so Emma could get in every second of her therapy without distraction. What happened instead was Emma got bored and had no interest in doing the exercises, and Addison ended up feeling left out. When the therapist suggested we include Addison in the therapy session, an amazing thing happened, Emma suddenly wanted to do all of her exercises with her sister, and Addison felt included and valued.

2. Make therapy fun.

When we think therapy, the first word that comes to mind is usually not “fun.” However, it can be! Especially with children, the sky is the limit. We do activities such as crafts, cooking and games to sneak in therapy time without either of them even realizing it. By doing a fun craft or activity as a family, your child gets therapy time, and their siblings are included in the fun!

3. Include them in age appropriate care taking roles.

There are small tasks your child can do so they feel like they are helping care for their brother or sister. For example, after Emma has worn her brace all day, I ask her sister to help take it off. She is always so proud to help, and Emma loves the time with her sister. Siblings often don’t know what they can do to help, and may also feel that it is not their place. We tend as parents to do everything ourselves. This could make them feel helpless, and the main caretakers can feel burnt out. By giving siblings a role in the care, no matter how small, they can feel like they are contributing. This also gives caretakers one less task to do, and we all know how every little bit counts.

Our daughter’s disability has brought some unexpected gifts to our lives. One of those gifts is seeing the compassion our oldest daughter has learned from having a sister with a disability. I hope one day she will fully understand what a huge role she has played in Emma’s progress.

A version of this post originally published by Cerebral Palsy Alliance, Sydney, Australia.

Follow this journey at Grass and Roots Family.