Feeling invisible to a sibling with special needs is an experience social scientists refer to as “good sibling syndrome.” Children with siblings with cognitive disabilities, physical disabilities, or mental health problems may feel ignored or defined by their sibling’s special needs.
A pediatrician wrote about an experience he had been flying with his brother with autism when he was 12 years old to visit a relative. A passenger wanted to know if the brother had any friends, what class he was in, and what he liked to eat. When the flight ended, the pediatrician realized that the passenger was so focused on his brother that she didn’t even ask for his name.
Researchers have long overlooked sibling dynamics in aspects of family psychology. Social scientists are learning about the experience of healthy siblings, including how parents might treat them differently or how they often feel ignored or left out. Problematically, siblings tend to keep these feelings to themselves.
The differences within the Well Sibling Syndrome
Well sibling syndrome is a broad term that encompasses many different experiences. For some children, growing up with a sibling with a terminal illness can mean their family receives a disruptive diagnosis that ultimately leads to loss.
For other children, having a sibling with a chronic condition can mean that their sibling’s special needs are part of everyday life. And for kids who have a sibling with a mental illness, the rhythm of the household may depend on their sibling’s mood.
Despite these differences, research has found a shared common response among good siblings – avoidance. Studies have shown that children with siblings with chronic physical disabilities, for example avoid talking about it with their parents as well as siblings.
Similarly, studies have shown that siblings of children with terminal illnesses, such as cancer or a genetic disorder, are also more likely to avoid their sibling’s situation. In one studyHalf of parents with a child with a fatal illness said their healthy child never started talking about their sibling’s illness.
Researchers have documented the same silence between siblings of children with mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, or cognitive disabilities such as autism. Social stigmas towards both mental illness and cognitive delays are reasons why siblings distance themselves from their siblings when they are outdoors.
Daily life changes when a child undergoes chemotherapy or other treatment for a life-threatening illness. Likewise, everyday life is different for families with children who cannot handle personal care such as going to the toilet or taking a bath. a study found that children whose siblings have intense daily needs were more affected than children whose circumstances were more manageable.
Despite the disruption of their daily lives, siblings were less likely to express their own concerns. Research has found: that good siblings tended to keep their own problems to themselves in an effort not to pressure their parents. These children saw their own concerns about school or friends as a potential burden on their parents and chose to remain silent.
Although good siblings don’t always share their problems with their parents, qualitative research has found that many have insight into their own emotional reactions. Some described the need to please people and make others in the family happy, as if it were their responsibility.
Well, siblings have also reported feeling ignored because their sibling needs more attention. While these kids understand why their parents are worried, they say it too feels like a rejection†
For some good siblings, because they felt they were getting less attention, they became more self-reliant and independent of the family. If they couldn’t interrupt a parent trying to feed a sibling or settle medical bills, they learn to control themselves. This also meant that they only had to deal with undiagnosed anxiety and depression†
Honesty and favoritism
Well, siblings may have to give up a toy to calm a sibling’s tantrum. They may find that most of the family’s pocket money is set aside for their sibling’s medical bills. Or they may feel that their parents have developed a different standard for each of their children.
Brothers and sisters of children with a mental illness or cognitive disorders such as autism have reported they feel that their parents will tolerate their sibling’s outbursts, but punish them if they do the same. Parents may expect the good sibling to do well in school or have good manners, but excuse the special needs child for doing the same.
Some report resentment to their parents and siblings. Resentment can also result from feeling a good sibling, as if they have been asked to take responsibility for their sibling’s care.
What does this resentment mean when the children grow up? Researchers don’t know yet. they have performed long term studies to see if healthy siblings are more likely to have behavioral problems than children without sick siblings. But social scientists haven’t actually asked adult siblings how they feel about their childhood experiences. Therefore, some researchers say that the dynamic needs of siblings more research in the social sciences.