A NSW Government website

Siblings, family dynamics and relationships

Caring for a child or young person with complex medical needs can have an impact on the entire family. It's important to have a support crew of family and friends who can provide help and understanding.

Siblings of children with complex medical needs

Being the sibling of a child with complex medical needs can be both challenging and rewarding. Being honest and open with your children, spending quality time with them and solving problems together can help them to feel supported and understood. It can also help them to understand their brother or sister’s medical condition, building a stronger bond between your children and family as a whole.

Supporting siblings in your family

Here are some tips on how to support the siblings in your family.

  • Listen to your child's feelings about their sibling's medical situation. They might feel happy and proud at times, but also sad, embarrassed, annoyed or confused. All of these feelings are normal.
  • Let your children know that it’s okay to ask questions and share their feelings. It is helpful to be truthful and to answer their questions in words they can understand.
  • Encourage your children to spend time together. If one child is in hospital or away for treatment they can connect through drawings, cards, messages, or phone calls.
  • Teach your children about different ways of communicating with their siblings. This will help them understand each other better.
  • Involve your other children in hospital visits or appointments (when appropriate) to help them better understand their sibling's medical condition. For younger children it can be helpful to read books about going to the hospital and play "hospital" or "doctor" games.
  • Where possible, try to spend quality time with each of your children. This can be planned (e.g. doing some drawing together, going for a walk to the park), or unplanned (having a sing-along or good conversation in the car) and will look different for every family.

Social support for siblings

Connecting with friends and other siblings in similar situations can help your children to share their experiences and learn that they are not alone. See below for ideas on how to keep your child connected.

  • Online or in-person peer support groups for siblings of children with disability are a great way for your children to connect with others. These groups often run through disability organisations, local councils or young carer support services.
    • Livewire is an online community linked to the Starlight Foundation. It is designed to connect and support children aged 12 and older who live with illness/disability (and their siblings).
    • For more peer support information and links, see Siblings Australia.
  • Encourage your children to join activities or groups in the community (e.g. a sports team, music group, volunteer organisation). It will help them to feel like they belong and are important.
  • Tell your children's teachers about your family's situation. This will help them to keep an eye out and give extra support at school if needed.

For siblings who are carers

For more specific support for siblings who are involved with caring for their brother/sister with complex medical needs, Little Dreamers Australia has a number of programs and supports. More information can be found here: Little Dreamers Australia.

Signs of mental health issues

Siblings of children with medical needs or disabilities may sometimes feel difficult emotions that can affect how they act. Sometimes, these feelings don't go away, and it can start to affect other parts of their lives. Watch out for signs that show their mental health might be affected. These signs could include:

  • Changes in sleep or eating habits.
  • Feeling annoyed a lot of the time.
  • Not enjoying things they used to like.
  • Avoiding or being mean to their sibling with complex medical needs.
  • Struggling with schoolwork.
  • Not wanting to be with friends.
  • Pretending to have complex medical needs themselves.
  • Trying hard to make others happy.

If you notice any of these signs, it is important to seek professional support from a GP/doctor, psychologist, or counsellor.

Other resources

Family dynamics and relationships

Being a parent is a big responsibility, and taking care of yourself is an important part of doing that job well. When you take care of your body, mind, and emotions, you can have more energy and time to give to your children. This helps them grow and do well.

Support for parents

Taking care of a child with complex medical needs can be both rewarding and challenging. As a parent it can be easy to become overwhelmed with caring responsibilities and not have any time to look after yourself. This can be true for single parent families as well as families with more than one parent/carer.

Practical and emotional support

To avoid "burn out" and look after your own wellbeing, it is important to seek practical and emotional support from your friends, family, GP, councillor or existing support agencies. Visit the Raising Children Network for more information about why support is important and where to get it.

Peer support options

Relationships with grandparents

When grandparents have a grandchild with complex medical needs or a disability, they face unique challenges. Not only do they need to understand the impact on their grandchild, but they also worry about their adult child.

Things grandparents may be worried about:

  • Wanting to be helpful but not wanting to be overbearing or in the way.
  • Wanting to know what is going on but not wanting to bother the family with questions.
  • Needing support themselves but not being sure of where to get it.
  • Having their own health problems.
  • Feeling less connected to the family if they live far away.

It's up to your family to decide how much involvement grandparents will have in your journey. If the relationship is positive, grandparents can be a great source of emotional and practical support. To help them support you, give them ideas and suggestions, such as:

  • Cooking or cleaning.
  • Helping with transport.
  • Providing emotional support to the family during appointments or hospital stays.
  • Taking care of siblings.
  • Providing updates to other family and friends.

Relationships with friends 

Friends can play a big role in your support network during challenging times. To help your friends to support you, you can:

  • Give them specific ideas on how they can help (e.g. making dinner, taking the child's sibling to soccer practice).
  • Let them know your preferred way of staying in contact, whether it's through phone calls, texts, or face-to-face visits.
  • Share resources that can help them better understand your child's needs and the experiences and challenges your family is going through.

Source Kids has a list of ways that friends can support families of children who have recently been diagnosed with a condition. To access the list, see here: Source Kids.

Sometimes friends or people who do not understand your situation well may say the wrong thing without meaning to. Click here for a helpful resource on responding to unhelpful comments: Child disability: people’s reactions | Raising Children Network.