Relationship Quality in Adult Siblings with and without Developmental Disabilities

By Burbidge, Julia; Minnes, Patricia | Family Relations, February 2014 | Go to article overview

Relationship Quality in Adult Siblings with and without Developmental Disabilities


Burbidge, Julia, Minnes, Patricia, Family Relations


Siblings play an important role in the lives of individuals with and without disabilities. Cicirelli (1995) outlined five characteristics of sibling relationships that make them unique relative to other relationships. First, sibling relationships are often the longest relationships peoplewill have in their lifetime as they typically start at birth or in the early childhood years and last until the death of one of the siblings. Second, unlike relationships with friends or intimate partners that are purposely selected, the relationship with the sibling is automatically created at birth (or in early childhood if a sibling is adopted). Regardless of whether siblings maintain contact with one another, they will always maintain the status of siblings. Third, sibling relationships tend to follow a pattern of closeness that changes over the life course. In childhood, most siblings live together and interact on a daily basis, whereas early and middle adulthood are characterized by decreased frequency of contact. In later adulthood, sibling relationship closeness tends to increase as the support network of older adults begins to decrease (Goetting, 1986). Fourth, despite differences in age, sibling relationships tend to be relatively egalitarian with both siblings having mutual feelings toward one another. Finally, siblings have shared and nonshared life experiences, and both types of experiences can influence the personal development of each sibling and can affect the sibling relationship.

RELATIONSHIPS WITH SIBLINGS WITH A DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITY IN ADULTHOOD

The presence of an individual with a developmental disability (DD) in the family can alter the experience of siblings without a disability. The relationship between the siblings with and without a DD often takes a more hierarchical form as the sibling with a DD is more reliant on the brother or sister without a DD for emotional and instrumental support. Additionally, siblings may have fewer shared life experiences, particularly as disability severity increases (Stoneman, 2005).Many siblings, including young children, also take on a caregiver role for their brother or sister with a disability (Bigby, 1997; McHale & Gamble, 1989). In adulthood siblings often anticipate greater caregiving responsibilities of their sibling with a DD as parents age (Greenberg, Seltzer, Orsmond, & Krauss, 1999; Krauss, Seltzer, Gordon, & Friedman, 1996), and many take on the role of primary caregiver once parents are no longer able (Bigby, 1997).

In recent years, there has been an increased interest in understanding the experiences of adults who have a sibling with a DD. Despite the changes that occur in the sibling relationship as a result of one sibling having a DD, adult siblings report close relationships (Hodapp, Urbano, & Burke, 2010) and regular in-person and telephone contact (Hodapp et al., 2010; Krauss et al., 1996) with their siblings with a DD. For many adults with a DD, their sibling is an integral component of their support network, particularly during adulthood (Krauss, Seltzer, & Goodman, 1992). However, the few studies that have included a comparison group show that siblings of individuals with a DD report less relationship closeness and less frequent contact than siblings of individuals without a DD (Doody, Hastings, O'Neill, & Grey, 2010; Taylor, Greenberg, Seltzer, & Floyd, 2008).

Relationship closeness and frequency of contact are important aspects of sibling relationships because they relate to psychological well-being of siblings, provision of support, and future caregiving expectations (Bigby, 1997; Greenberg et al., 1999; Seltzer, Greenberg, Krauss, Gordon, & Judge, 1997). Adult siblings who are emotionally close tend to desire a greater frequency of contact with one another (Scott, 1990) and provide more instrumental support to one another (Weaver, Coleman, & Ganong, 2003). Frequency of contact has typically been defined as in-person contact and telephone calls (e. …

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