Sibling Issues

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At about 3 yrs old the differences between 'alcohol affected' and 'non-alcohol affected' kids seems to become very pronounced and obvious to our other children. Lack of impulse control, extreme emotions, and a difficulty learning the basic rules of family interaction lead to the logical questions from older kids in our house. "What's wrong with my brother?"
Talking About FAS With Siblings: Question From A Friend.....

Parents of a child affected by FASD often wonder how to explain FASD to his or her siblings. When the child with FASD has an uncontrolled outburst, or when he or she takes a toy or other valuable from their room without permission, or when the parent(s) treat the disabled child differently because of the FASD, the non-disabled ( "NT" or neurotypical) sibling(s) cannot help but be impacted by the condition.

With the time and energy needed to supervise and manage the ongoing needs of a child affected by FASD, it can be difficult for the adults in the family to carve out meaningful time to spend with the child or children in the family who do not have FASD. Parents are caught in the crossfire trying to emotionally absorb the anger and
resentment from all sides.

Common Sibling Issues

As in any family, positive and negative feelings may develop between siblings or because of siblings. Here are a few issues that siblings of a child affected by FASD may face:
  • Embarrassment of the sibling’s behavior or appearance.
  • Anger or jealousy over the amount of attention the child with the disability receives. This may lead to a desire to act out in negative ways, either to get the parents' attention and/or to dull the depth of their own conflicted feelings about their disabled brother or sister.
  • Isolation ("None of my friends have a sister with FASD!" "I can never have anyone over because of my brother's behavior!")
  • Pressure to achieve in order to “make-up” for the disabled brother or sister’s inabilities.

Balancing Parenting Between the Child with FASD and the NT Child

Parents describe their exhaustion which causes them to neglect the needs and activities of their normal children. Parents agonize over the unmet needs of all their children because the critical needs of the child with FASD monopolizes both their time and energy. Siblings feel angry and resentful toward their unavailable parents while at the same time they resent the child with FASD for embarrassing the family with outlandish behavior. Parents are not only exhausted physically from caring for a child with special 24-hour needs, but they are emotionally drained from the anger and bitterness they receive from everyone.

With a child with FASD and a child who is neurotypical (NT), parents usually must try to keep track of two sets of household rules:
  • Some rules favor siblings who need less supervision and consequently are allowed more freedom to be alone with their peers. The child with FASD who has a normal IQ will eventually recognize the unfair rules and can become very resentful and defiant toward their siblings and parents.
  • Other rules favor the child with FASD because the nature of the disability means the child with FASD often has a volatile temper, has great difficulty controlling impulses and can't stay focused on any task. Parents must handle discipline differently, lavishing praise on the child with FASD for the simplest task. Outraged, the NT siblings complain ("You'd never let me get away with that kind of behavior!").
This rules gap may become so severe during the teen years that out-of-home placement is seen as critical for everyone's safety.

When the Nondisabled Sibling Recognizes FASD as a Disability

Most siblings of a person with FASD eventually realize that their brother or sister is not deliberately tearing the family apart, but is disabled. This can lead to a person who is more caring, patient, and understanding of persons with special needs in general.

However, some siblings face other challenges with this realization:
  • Some siblings become overburdened by guilt, and then turn their anger inward on themselves. ("I'm such a terrible person for hating my brother.") Some siblings become depressed, and sometimes suicidal.
  • Sometimes destructive co-dependent relationships can develop between a nondisabled sibling and a child with FASD. Sexual assault and incestuous relationships have been reported
  • Some parents describe the intensity of the adrenal "rush" surrounding the tension associated with the child with FASD. This constant state of tension can become addictive, especially to siblings who may never have experienced life without the chaos of living with a child with the daily needs of many persons with FASD.

Effective Strategies

Here are a few ideas for parents in treating all of their children --disabled and "normal" -- in loving and fair ways:
  • Treat the child who does not have the disability as a child, not just as another caregiver.
  • Have "date" nights (or afternoons or mornings) with each child to give them the attention they crave. 
  • Make a standing ritual where the NT and the child with FASD child always does a particular activity (such as grocery shopping, shooting baskets in the driveway after dinner, walking the dogs, etc.) with the parent alone.
  • Have someone whom the child who has FASD take him or her into the community for a while (or even overnight or longer, if that is feasible), to give the parents and the other kids a "breather."
  • Make an effort to speak openly --and respectfully-- about disability and about the challenges faced by the brother or sister with FASD, in order to create an atmosphere where all the siblings feel it's okay to talk about it.  Answer their questions in terms they can understand. Take time to ask the sibling how they feel about things. Encourage them to express their feelings openly even if you don’t like what you hear.
  • Arrange for respite for the FASD-affected child, if possible, so the son(s) or daughter(s) without the condition feel comfortable inviting a friend over for a sleepover or a play date.

Sibling Issues in Adulthood

Many of these issues remain concerns for siblings even after they become adults. For example. siblings who do not have a disability may be concerned about the future of their sibling with FASD after the parents die, especially if the FASD-affected brother or sister still lives at home.

When the questions do come I usually ask the kids to tell me what they see as wrong and we work from there so that I don't overwhelm them with facts or details. It's not a secret - it's a reality, and in the long term (like after my husband and I die) these siblings are hopefully going to be strong advocates and supporters for our kids with FASD issues.
Talking About FAS With Siblings: Question From A Friend.....

Useful Links

What Do I Do? Helping Your Kids Understand Their Sibling's Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)