Brothers and sisters

Because the initial decision had been made not just for the sake of the child with mental retardation, but also in the belief that it was also in the interest of the other brothers and sisters, it was feared that when the children were brought home out of institutions, it would be the brothers and sisters who would pay the price. There is now a considerable body of literature confirming the early findings that siblings are by no means invariably damaged. Thirty years ago, there was evidence that the older girls in the families did suffer, and were difficult and distressed at school while having more than usual amounts of responsibility at home. As services improved, these findings were no longer replicated except in those countries with few facilities and many social problems. In general, the other children in the family have identified themselves with their parents' decisions and take some part in the caring. This 'assistant' parent role comes easily to older siblings, but younger siblings growing up fast, first catch up with the mentally retarded sibling and then overtake in development and the privileges earned by greater maturity. Parents describe this period of catching up and gradual overtaking as one of the most difficult in bringing up their children because of rivalry or jealousy. However, subsequent interviews with parents show that they are as sensitive to the needs of their 'normal' children as to those of the mentally retarded child, and the balance between the siblings is readjusted. There is little evidence of long-term damage, but on the contrary, a consistent finding that the brothers and sisters are drawn to the caring professions, particularly medicine, nursing, or special needs teaching. The majority of families with children with mental retardation are ordinary families with 'one feature in common',(1) but a minority will have related problems in parents or other siblings. One child with a major disability may be manageable for a family, but the problems poised by two may far exceed their capacity to cope. Other families have major social or housing problems as well coincidental physical or mental disorders in other members of the family.

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