It can be tricky to balance the needs of individual children within any family, and this can be even trickier in households with disabled children. Sibs is a support organisation for brothers and sisters of disabled children and adults.
Some difficulties PDA siblings may experience
Other children in the family may bear the brunt of verbal and violent outbursts from their PDA sibling.
The variable and unpredictable nature of PDA can leave siblings feeling on edge when at home.
They may feel stifled and controlled by their sibling.
It can be very distressing for them to witness their sibling having a meltdown, and also maybe seeing their parents struggling to cope.
Consistent and focused attention on their sibling may result in other children feeling left out and resentful.
They may feel that their sibling is treated differently and ‘gets away with things’, which may feel unfair.
PDA children can sometimes be jealous and try to prevent positive interaction between their siblings and parents.
It can be embarrassing for brothers and sisters when their friends come over to play if their sibling is constantly trying to influence things or displaying unusual or shocking behaviour. Some miss out on play dates altogether.
Family outings can be difficult to manage if their sibling is struggling to cope resulting in last minute cancellations or their sibling dictating activities.
Strategies to try to reduce the impact of PDA on siblings
Educating siblings about PDA
Many families educate their other children about PDA from a young age. This can help siblings to develop a genuine understanding of their brother’s or sister’s difficulties, how this can impact behaviours and why their parents are parenting one child more flexibly than others. This understanding can help siblings to cope with the different expectations that parents may have of them, and to feel part of the support network. The book Can I Tell You About PDA? is suitable for ages 7+ and Autism East Midlands produces a booklet about PDA for siblings which can be ordered on 0115 960 9263 or via email. A parent to a PDA child has also written two very helpful documents: a Q&A for Siblings and Personal Thoughts about PDA Siblings.
Adopting their own helpful approaches
Parents can work with their other children to develop their own helpful approaches for PDA. For younger children, this might involve drawing pictures or making a poster of helpful things they can do – ideas might include keeping calm, moving away if their sibling becomes angry and asking for help from an adult instead of reacting back. This can be exhausting for siblings, but with practice it will begin to come naturally and ultimately all family members will benefit.
Safe and private space
Some families find it helpful to provide siblings with their own safe place within the home which is out of bounds for their PDA sibling; a place where they can feel relaxed and calm in the knowledge that their private space will not be invaded. This can be a difficult but important boundary to maintain.
Spending time with siblings separately can help both parties, although this can be difficult for some families to arrange (it may be possible to seek help from family, friends or respite services – another option might be to collect your other child/ren from school at lunchtime (as it’s not a legal requirement for children to remain in school at lunchtime) and have a little quality time then). Even spending as little as 15 minutes a day with a child on an activity of their choosing can be hugely beneficial.
Whole family time
It’s important to still try to maintain time as a whole family to develop relationships between siblings too. Try short outings that have been carefully planned or home-based non-confrontational activities such as watching a film (rather than competitive board games!).
It can be helpful to try and adopt a similar parenting style for all children in the family, as it can reduce any feelings of unfairness and confusion. Two approaches to consider are: Gentle Parenting and the Dr Ross Greene philosophy. In broad terms this involves talking, problem solving, working as a team and negotiating with all children in the family to resolve difficulties and issues, although parents may need to tailor expectations according to the varying needs and capabilities of each individual child. Other parents may feel that it is important to maintain a more traditional style of parenting for their other children, in which cases educating them about PDA and explaining why different approaches are needed for their sibling may help to reduce any feelings of resentment.
Support for siblings
It’s important for parents to be aware of the effect that living with a PDA sibling can have on the emotional well-being of their other children. These are tips that have worked well in many PDA households:
Finding little ways to regularly let siblings know that they are loved and noticed – this could be a little note in their lunchbox or sending a text message.
Helping children know that their concerns are taken seriously and that it’s good to talk about things. Empathise and acknowledge feelings – discuss options that could reduce or resolve some of the concerns, and if this isn’t possible because the situation can’t be changed it’s important to acknowledge that before helping them develop the resilience to cope with it.
Siblings may benefit from having regular respite outside the home – with a parent, other family member, family friend, another suitable adult or at a friend’s house or with a respite service provider.
It can also be helpful for siblings to have people they can talk to who aren’t directly involved with the family. They may not want to discuss certain matters with their parents for fear of adding to their stress or causing upset. Sometimes it may be helpful to seek support for siblings from services that can offer counselling as well as those services that can offer practical respite.
Sibsis a support organisation for brothers and sisters of disabled children and adults – there are other helpful organisations for siblings on our Support & Advice page.