Sibshop program focuses on siblings of children with special needs

Posted by Step Up for Autism - September 12, 2012 - News - No Comments

From left, Ciara Raynor, a Supported Living Specialist at The Resource Center, and Sibshop participants Kiora Higgs and Caleb Peelman takepart in the snowball game. Kids wrote on a piece of paper about who they were, what they liked and some trait of theirs; they then divided into two groups, crumpled up the papers and had a “snowball fight.” After the snowball fight, whatever snow (paper ball) a child had picked up, he or she had to read about the person described on the paper in their hands and introduce that person to the group. This was a get-to-know-you activity. By the smiles on their faces, everyone had a great time with this activity.

Childhood can be challenging, and siblings of children with special needs face particularly unique challenges.  A program offered by The Resource Center provides an opportunity for peer support while enabling children to engage in fun activities.

For the past two summers, TRC has offered Sibshops, a program of the Sibling Support Project, a U.S.-based organization that is active in 10 countries.  The Sibling Support Project’s web site states that Sibshops were established from the realization that “being the brother or sister of a person with special needs is for some a good thing, others a not-so-good thing, and for many, somewhere in-between.”

According to the author of the Sibshops curriculum, Don Meyer, the workshop is designed to allow “brothers and sisters of children with special health, mental health, and developmental needs to obtain peer support and education within a recreational context.”

Siblings of children with disabilities often feel neglected or are given more responsibility and higher expectations by their parents due to the needs of their brother or sister.  Many times, siblings experience resentful feelings, are embarrassed by their siblings or have had to rescue their siblings in a situation and have not properly dealt with their own emotions arising from these experiences.  Though Sibshop is not therapy, the activities allow the participants to learn to express their feelings about brothers or sisters with disabilities.  Siblings learn how others cope with their feelings, and they learn from one another.

“This recreational program gives siblings an opportunity where they can go to a place and meet other siblings with brothers and sisters with disabilities,” said Tess Kerzner, TRC’s director of children’s services.  “It gives them a special time and is a great opportunity for them to learn.”

Sibshop gives siblings peer support, fun activities to do and a way to express their feelings.  The program is run by a licensed social worker, adult siblings of people with disabilities and respite workers.

During the meetings, the children start with introductory activities such as writing “I Am” poems, playing music, creating art, and learning about their strengths and weaknesses.  The weekly meetings usually consist of low-energy activities, high-energy activities, and lunch.

For low-energy activities, children write poems, create a graffiti wall and tree to express their feelings, read time capsules, decorate T-shirts for themselves and their sibling, and engage in other similar activities.  A favorite activity is reading mail from “Dear Aunt Blabby” and having participants suggest ways of dealing with other children’s concerns about their own siblings with special needs.  This gives participants an opportunity to hear how others deal with emotions felt by other children.

High-energy activities include games such as balloon stomp, mat tag (a version of musical chairs), snowball fun, blob tag, and the mummy game.  Facilitators often use these games to help children express feelings through movement, keeping the activities fun and educational.  One activity that the most recent Sibshop group enjoyed was called hog call.  In it, the players were paired up and blindfolded and had to use certain buzzwords to try to find their partner from across the field.

The children also help with making lunch.  This summer, chicken nuggets and macaroni & cheese were big hits in the group.  At the end of each meeting, children are given superlative awards that they often choose for one another or are noted by the counselor.

Veronica Nowak attended Sibshop two years in a row.  She likes the program because “we have a lot of games and stuff, and, well, it’s just plain fun!”  She especially likes playing the games and making new friends.  She learns from the workshops, too: “I remember a little saying, ‘You don’t know someone ‘til you walk in their shoes.’”  She has also learned how to better interact with her brother, who has special needs.  “It helps me.  Like sometimes when we were in school, Thursdays and Fridays our mom couldn’t pick us up, so we had a babysitter, and when Michal had a little problem, I helped him keep calm.”

Veronica’s mother, Izabela, sees that her daughter really enjoys the Sibshops meetings.  Izabela said she enrolled her daughter in Sibshop “to let her know that she’s not the only one [with a] sibling [who] has problems.  Just to know that she’s not alone, that there are other kids with the same situation.  And just for summer fun, because they always have nice activities that are fun.”

She also likes that the workshops have helped Veronica understand her brother’s disability better.  “They explain what’s going to come with their siblings, why they have problems and just how to deal with it.  I think that was nice,” Izabela said.  “I feel she knows more about the disability itself.”

Other parents of children in previous Sibshop sessions expressed similar feelings.  Comments from parents included:

“Our son was better able to put his feelings into words with others, and he expressed some understanding of his sister’s limits and challenges.”

“My daughter had the opportunity to voice her feelings and have them validated buy her peers, as well as adults.”

“My son and daughter are now more tolerant of their sibling.  It also helped their own self-esteem.”

Other kids said they enjoyed the program because they learned about themselves, learned about their siblings and had lots of fun.  One of this summer’s participants, Kaitlyn, expressed her feelings about Sibshop: “I didn’t think that necessarily I was alone and that I was the only one that had a brother like that, but I definitely felt like I was the only one having a difficult time with it.  I learned that it’s OK to get upset sometimes; all the time, it’s not going to be easy; and that other people get frustrated too.”

Another participant said she learned that, “No matter how different your brother or sister is, they still should be treated like everyone.  They shouldn’t be singled out.”

Another child, CJ, said, “I love Sibshops.  It helps me learn about my sister.”

All of the participants said they would recommend Sibshop to other children who have siblings with disabilities.  One student, Austin, said he would recommend it “because you get to meet new people.  You get to take a break from your sibling.”

Veronica exclaimed, “I would definitely [recommend it], because it helps you with the struggle, and it’s fun!”

If you want your child in this program, Sibshop sessions will be available this fall.  The program accepts 12 to15 children, ages 8-12, who have a sibling with a disability; ages 6, 7 and 13 will be considered.  Sibshop scholarships are available on a limited basis and are made possible by TRC Foundation through money raised by its Step Up for Autism event.  For more information about Sibshop, contact Ms. Kerzner at 661-1057 or at

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