Should kids be asked to care for a disabled sib?

This is the author's note to Pillow: A sibling story, which was written by Sophia Isako Wong. Sophia has a 40-year-old brother with Down syndrome. She is an associate professor of philosophy at Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. She writes about political and educational inclusion for people with cognitive disabilities and justice within family relationships.

I wrote this story to illustrate how typical siblings may feel when they provide “respite care” for their parents. Research shows that parents often believe that their children are emotionally mature enough to recognize their own developmental needs and to speak up for themselves. One parent said, “I know if it’s too much for her she’ll tell me.”

Let me tell you a secret: we sibs don’t tell our parents how we truly feel. Our motto is “Never mind me; you have enough to deal with. I’ll figure it out by myself.” If our behaviour seems untroubled and serene, that’s because we are experts at hiding our worries, resentment, envy and nightmares.

In families untouched by disabilities, sisters and brothers fight, argue, sulk and express the whole spectrum of feelings toward each other. In our families, we never get that opportunity. With our sibs, it is never a fair fight. Even if we have a just cause, the disabled child usually gets the lion’s share of our parents’ attention and sympathy.

We’ve learned through experience that we are rewarded with positive attention from parents for being the easy child, and sometimes reproached for making more trouble for you. So we often help you without complaining.

We watch you every day. We see that parents have far too much to do, resources are lacking, and there aren’t enough hours in the day.

When we notice how exhausted you are, we fear that you won’t be able to take care of us adequately, or you might have to quit your jobs, and where would we be then? So we volunteer to give you a break, thinking this will help the whole family survive. “Parentification” is what happens when children perform the role of parent at the expense of their own developmentally appropriate needs and pursuits. When children take on responsibilities performed more appropriately by an adult, they feel torn between looking after the vulnerable sibling and taking care of their own needs.

If a child or teenager (mistakenly) perceives that his needs are less important than the needs of others in the family, he may volunteer to sacrifice time and energy he would otherwise devote to school, friendships and typical childhood activities.

Research shows increased risk of psychological and social problems in some siblings who are burdened by excessive caregiving roles and who, in effect, become ‘little parents.’

Here’s the good news: the whole family benefits when parents take breaks from the exhausting work of caring for a child with disabilities. Parents need to take care of their own health by asking support staff, neighbours, friends and family members to help out. Doing so gives them precious time to rest and recover from the stresses of parenting a child with disabilities.

Even if your typical child is eager to babysit, and is supremely confident she can handle it, please make sure an adult is supervising her at all times. That way, she doesn’t have to function as an adult before she is ready. By helping but not being in charge, typical children can continue to focus on what they need to be healthy and safe.

Trust me, we siblings of kids with disabilities feel intensely guilty whenever we play with other kids, master skills that the disabled sib will never learn, or pass for normal in a crowd. We’re acutely aware that we are very lucky to be non-disabled, and that we might have been born in the disabled sib’s shoes.

Some of us are forever trying to make it up by being on our best behaviour, concealing our negative feelings and accepting more than our fair share of household chores. Many of us see ourselves as Super Sibs: born to babysit. You may even believe that we are more high-functioning and more emotionally mature than other kids our age. Don’t be fooled: we are kids with the same concerns and complex emotions as other young people.

So if your child volunteers to babysit before she has become a competent adult mature enough to have her own children, I hope you’ll think of Pillow and Sister and say: “No, honey, go ahead and play. We’ll hire a babysitter, use respite, or ask other adults to help us when we need a break.”