Siblings of Kids with Learning Disabilities Are Not Jealous but Rather Empathetic Israeli Study Shows

Hashem said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9 (The Israel Bible™)

One would expect the brothers and sisters of children who have intellectual disabilities to be jealous and angry at their siblings because their parents naturally have to invest much more time, energy and attention in them. But there is good news from research by experts at Tel Aviv University (TAU) and the University of Haifa who studied this matter.
They found that there is generally a positive relationship between children and their siblings with intellectual disabilities and that those children without such problems score high when tested for empathy, closeness and their willingness to teach the less fortunate.
The sibling relationship is the longest most people will enjoy in their lifetimes and is central to the everyday lives of children, said Prof. Anat Zaidman-Zait of the department of school counseling and special education at TAU’s Constantiner School of Education and Dr. Dafna Regev and Miri Yechezkiely of the University of Haifa’s Graduate School of Creative Art Therapies. Their study was recently published in Research in Developmental Disabilities.
Their study used artwork and questionnaires answered by both the children and their parents to examine the relationships of typically developing children with siblings with and without intellectual disabilities.
“Having a child with a disability in a family places unique demands on all family members, including typically developing siblings,” Zaidman-Zait noted. “Although challenges exist, they are often accompanied by both short- and long-term positive contributions. Through our research, we found that relationships among children with siblings with intellectual disabilities were even more supportive than those among typically developed siblings. Specifically, we found that children with siblings with intellectual disabilities scored higher on empathy, teaching and closeness and scored lower on conflict and rivalry than those with typically developing siblings.”
Until now, research on how having a sibling with a developmental disability affects children’s social-emotional and behavioral outcomes generated mixed findings. At times, the findings suggested that having a sibling with developmental disabilities led to greater variability in typically developing children’s behavior and adjustment.
“But these studies did little to tap into the inner worlds of children, which really can only be accessed through self-expression in the form of art or self-reporting, independent of parental intervention, which is the route we took in our study,”. Zaidman-Zait explained.
The scientists assessed some 60 children aged eight to 11, half with typically developing siblings, half with intellectually disabled siblings, by examining drawings and a questionnaire about their relationships with their siblings. Mothers of both sets of siblings were also asked to answer questions about their children’s sibling-relationship quality.
“We drew on the basic assumption that artistic creation allows internal content to be expressed visually and that children’s self-reports have special added value in studies measuring sibling relationship qualities, especially in areas where parents might have less insight,” Zaidman-Zait added.
Both sets of typically developing children – with and without siblings with intellectual disabilities – were asked to draw themselves and their siblings. Licensed art therapists then used several set criteria to “score” the illustrations: the physical distance between the figures; the presence or absence of a parent in the illustration; the amount of detail invested in either the self-portrait or the sibling representation; and the amount of support given to a sibling in the picture. The children were then asked to complete the Sibling Relationship Questionnaire, which assesses the feelings of closeness, dominance, conflict and rivalry they felt for their siblings.
Reviewing the children’s illustrations and questionnaires, as well as the questionnaires completed by the mothers, the researchers found that the children with siblings with intellectual disabilities scored significantly higher on empathy, teaching and closeness in their sibling relationship and scored lower on conflict and rivalry in the relationships than those with typically developing siblings.
The use of projective drawing is a well-established and common quantitative methodological approach, the researchers wrote. “Artistic creation allows internal content to be expressed visually.”
“Our study makes a valuable contribution to the literature by using an art-based data gathering task to shed new light on the unique aspects of the relationships of children with siblings with intellectual disabilities that are not revealed in verbal reports,” Zaidman-Zait concluded. “We can argue that having a family member with a disability makes the rest of the family, including typically developing children, more attentive to the needs of others.”
As the sample size was relatively small, the researchers hope their study will serve as a basis for further research into art-based tools that elicit and document the subjective experience of children. “Further investigation of a large sample of children with and without a sibling with ID would better assess the utility of these and other drawing indicators.” Despite the number of children who were assessed, the authors wrote that “our study makes a valuable contribution to the literature by using an art-based data gathering task to shed new light on the unique aspects of the relationships of children with their ID siblings that are not revealed in verbal reports.”

***