Friday, July 13, 2018

'We validate the diverse experiences siblings have'

Melissa Ngo (far right) and Daniel Scott (second right) run Holland Bloorview's sibling workshop. Here they appear with Liam Durack and Brittany Rogers, who are adult siblings that participated in a Young Carers' Forum hosted by the Change Foundation last year.

By Louise Kinross

“What should I do if a sibling might embarrass [me] and it might affect [my] friends?

“What do you do…or say to someone who says ‘you’re so r-word,’ or refers to someone as autistic who isn’t?”

“Have you ever been really angry with your sib?”

“How do you participate in their care? 

These are a few questions children with a brother or sister with a disability asked adult siblings at a workshop in May at Holland Bloorview.

“The purpose is to connect siblings of people with disabilities so they can have a network and can ask questions in a safe space,” says Melissa Ngo, a family support specialist who has a brother with a disability. “It’s an opportunity for children to discuss with their parents any worries, concerns and positive experiences they have.”

Twenty-five years ago, June Chiu, then a parent of a child with a disability, got together with two other parents and asked Holland Bloorview staff to host an event for siblings and their parents
which they did. “We just intuitively felt that the sibs in our families needed a forum, a safe space to identify and find common needs and support,” June says. “Like parents, sibs needed support—a place to talk, ask and learn that their feelings and questions are okay. It was an opportunity for parents to be more aware of sibling needs, especially when planning for the future.” 

Later in the 1990s, June Chiu became a family support specialist at Holland Bloorview and formally launched the annual sibling workshop. It’s now run by Melissa and Daniel Scott—staff who are both siblings themselves.

“My whole life was impacted, and continues to be impacted, by being a sibling of someone with a disability,” Melissa says. “A lot of the decisions I make, and a lot of my personal characteristics and personality, have been shaped because I’m a sibling.

As a young child, I grew up learning a lot about caring and compassion—and understanding what that looks and feels like. I also know what barriers look and feel like to my family. I’ve always been very aware of other people, and I see that as something that’s an asset. Now, as an adult, the severe lack of systemic supports from the government, and health care, as my brother grows older, is something that I worry about. I think the system needs to do better in supporting adults with disabilities and their families.”

The two hour sibling workshop in May drew 32 children, adult siblings and parents. It began with a short presentation from the Young Carers Program on some of the upsides and challenges of having a sibling with a disability. Then children aged seven to 14 broke into one group, and adult siblings and parents into another. The children “do activities and discussions that centre on the family, and have a safe space to talk for about an hour,” Melissa says. At the same time, parents in the other group have an opportunity to ask adult siblings questions. Then the younger participants rejoin their parents, and ask the adult siblings questions.

“It does get emotional,” Melissa says. “Parents are worried about the same things that sibs are worried about. Parents are very aware that sometimes they have to spend more time with the child with a disability, and they worry about their other children.”

Organizers select a diverse panel of adult siblings—age-wise and in terms of the diagnoses in their brother or sister. They also include adults whose siblings have died. “I think the great thing about our workshop is that we tell everyone right from the get-go that we’re not going to 'rose-colour' any of the information.” Melissa says. “It’s very honest and from the heart. I’ve heard of other workshops where they don’t talk about the hard or challenging things sibs go through. They try to encourage one way of thinking. We validate the diverse experiences siblings have.”

Children like meeting others who “get” their situation, Melissa says. “The most impactful thing I’ve heard from parents is that they will continue the discussion at home. Because we’ve opened the conversation, they may have learned something new about their child that they want to keep talking about.”

Some parents keep a question box at their house and encourage their children to write down anything they want to talk about and put it in the box. “Parents can encourage children to say things that might be really hard for them to say, or that they might be afraid to say,” Melissa says. It's good to check in regularly with kids to ask if they have questions, ideas or feelings about having a sibling with a disability.

Siblings may want to be involved with their brother or sister in different ways, and that can change as time goes along. It's also great to bring the child with a disability into discussions. 
We also encourage parents and caregivers to model self-care. Because when you take time to do things you enjoy, siblings can see that they don't have to feel guilty about doing the same thing, especially in the future.

Melissa and Daniel have applied for a No Boundaries grant that would support a program for siblings that would be run at the same time as Holland Bloorview’s education workshops.