Rebecca, mum to Imogen (10) and her sister (8), writes about the bond between SEN and non-SEN siblings.
I have taken some time with my daughter to create this article to share our experiences of the effects a SEN child can have on a sibling. We found the main points for discussion to be sibling rivalry and feeling frustrated, the effect it has had on her self esteem, being a child carer, the sibling bond and all the positives we have learnt along the way.
At times Imogen has felt that her sister's needs have dominated the adult attention in our family. She has felt left out and unimportant. Our favourite way to deal with this is to have scheduled 1:1 time: she values the opportunity to be open about her frustrations without feeling judged. This outlet allows Imogen to have more patience and understanding when handling hersiblings's challenging behaviour. Imogen and her sister follow the same rule set and have the same consequences. It’s important to my children to feel equal. It is just as important to celebrate Imogen's achievements as much as her sister's. It is the achievements that differ not the praise and recognition.
Imogen has found both positive and negative effects on her self esteem. She loves to be trusted with things her sibling can’t yet achieve independently. Her most valuable coping mechanism has been maintaining friendships with other children with SEN siblings. Her sister's lack of social skills has both embarrassed and empowered Imogen. She has been upset by her friends' lack of understanding of her sibling's behaviour at school, but in turn was inspired by her sibling's ability to care so little about what others think of her.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect is being a carer of a disabled child, while only being a child herself. Encouraging her sibling to try new things, reassuring her sibling throughout bouts of extreme anxiety, and all the physical things such as fetching her sister's bag and tying her laces for her. Imogen has been her sibling's guide to all in life. Her sister copies her as closely as possible in order to mask. This has become less effective as they get older, with a steep decline in her sibling's mental health coinciding with Imogen moving up to a playground for higher year groups without her sibling. The anxiety and guilt Imogen has felt for not being able to care for her sister has been tremendous.
At times Imogen's bond with her sibling has been a huge comfort to both of them. They were extremely close up until her sister was about six, yet over the past few years they have slowly drifted apart. Although born only fifteen months apart, the emotional age gap is much bigger. Imogen worries other children won't understand her sibling's conditions and delays. Imogen's sister and her are of similar height and age but we have come to a point where Imogen has more in common with their younger siblings whose emotional maturity is closer to her own.
There have been some big challenges along the way. Imogen's sibling has taught her so much about neurodiversity. Imogen has learnt understanding and that disability is not less, it's a difference in ability. Her sibling amazes her with in-depth knowledge of animals and insects, while her typical math skills are four years behind. In conclusion, discovering and learning about her SEN sibling has given Imogen many life skills - from empathy and patience, to tact and strong communication skills. We have all learnt to think outside the box, to adapt, and it is our SEN child we have to thank for this.