Children, particularly girls, who have handicapped siblings seem more anxious and more emotionally mature than those with non-disabled siblings, according to a team of child development researchers.
The researchers, led by Susan McHale, associate professor of human development at Penn State University, interviewed 62 children between the ages of 8 and 14; half of them had younger, mentally retarded siblings. The other half had younger siblings who were not disabled.
"Children with handicapped siblings appeared more mature," said McHale. "With maturity comes a loss of innocence, of childhood bliss." She said she believes that feelings of anxiety and lower self-esteem were associated with more rapid maturity.
Traditionally, behavioral researchers have believed that non-disabled children received less attention from their parents and were therefore jealous of their disabled siblings. It was also believed that children felt burdened by the responsiblities of helping their parents care for a disabled brother or sister.
Such views are simplistic and were not borne out by her research, McHale said. "Children did not report feeling more jealousy or rivalry toward their disabled siblings," she said. In fact, she said her subjects reported being happier when their mothers spent more time with handicapped siblings.
The way a child handles conflict with a younger, disabled sibling plays an important role in the older child's development and relationships. Those who tried to resolve problems by blaming them on other family members tended to have poorer relationships with their disabled siblings. Those who attempted to solve problems on their own fared better.