How Did Sibling Relationships Fare During Lockdown When a Child Has Special Needs?

April 27, 2022

Key Takeaway

During the COVID-19 lockdown, there was a rise in sibling conflict in families where at least one child had moderate special educational needs and disabilities (SENDs). These young people with special needs were both the instigators and receivers of the conflict, and it was mainly those with severe and complex needs that were spared this conflict. —Shekufeh

Sibling Conflict and Special Needs

In one of the first articles of its kind, Toseeb (University of York, 2021) investigated the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on families with children that had special education needs. The main focus was on sibling conflict during and after the first lockdown in the United Kingdom in families where at least one child has special needs. 

According to Toseeb, “at their highest level (the third month of lockdown), three out of four young people with [SENDs] were being picked on or hurt by their siblings and four out of five were picking on or hurting their siblings on purpose.” The study showed that boys were more likely to be involved in persistent sibling conflict than girls.1 

Mental Health

In addition, those with pre-existing mental health difficulties, low self-esteem, or social difficulties are also more likely to be involved in persistent sibling conflict.2,3 This also affects the parents of young people with SENDs, “who may experience higher levels of psychological distress compared with parents of neurotypical young people,”4 thus increasing the risk of intra-familial conflict.5 Additionally, young people with SENDs may “require disproportionate time, attention, and support from parents fuelling competitive behaviour and aggression amongst siblings.”6

Social Skills

Social and communication difficulties may make children with special needs more prone to being picked on by siblings, as is the case for conflict with peers.7 “Neurotypical siblings of young people with SENDs may also have some social impairments, such as not being able to respond appropriately in social situations,8 which may increase the risk of escalation of sibling conflict.“

Birth Order and Family Size

First-born children in a family were more likely to be victimized by their

siblings compared with those who were born second or later. Additionally, as the number of siblings increased, so did the frequency of victimization. In addition to this, “those siblings with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder were more likely to pick on or hurt their siblings compared with those without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (Toseeb, 2021).

Communication Skills

Young people who were minimally verbal, enrolled in non-mainstream educational placement, or had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) were less likely to be victimized by their siblings compared with those who were verbal, enrolled in a mainstream school, or those who did not have an IEP, respectively.

Children who were minimally verbal appeared to be somewhat protected from sibling conflict, both in terms of victimization and perpetration. It may be that siblings of young people with complex or severe SENDs perceive the attention directed towards their affected sibling as warranted and therefore are less likely to compete for parental resources.9 

Alternatively, it may be that “siblings of those with complex or severe SENDs adopt a more parent-like approach in the face of adversity. This is in line with the family systems approach whereby if one member of the family is affected with a SEND, then other members of the family tend to adapt to accommodate.”10

Summarized Article:

Toseeb, U. (2021) Sibling conflict during COVID-19 in families with special educational needs and disabilities. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 2021.

Summary by: Shekufeh—Shekufeh believes that the MARIO Framework builds relationships that enable students to view the world in a positive light as well as empowering them to create plans that ultimately lead to their success. 

Additional References:

  1. Tucker, C. J., Finkelhor, D., Shattuck, A. M., & Turner, H. (2013). Prevalence and correlates of sibling victimization types. Child Abuse & Neglect, vol. 37(4), pp. 213–223.
  2. Dantchev, S., & Wolke, D. (2019). Trouble in the nest: Antecedents of sibling bullying victimization and perpetration. Developmental Psychology, vol. 55(5), pp. 1059–1071.
  3. Phillips, D. A., Bowie, B. H., Wan, D. C., & Yukevich, K. W. (2016). Sibling violence and children hospitalized for serious mental and behavioral health problems. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, vol. 33, pp. 2558–2578.
  4. Hoffman, C. D., Sweeney, D. P., Hodge, D., Lopez-Wagner, M. C., & Looney, L. (2009). Parenting stress and closeness: Mothers of typically developing children and mothers of children with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, vol. 24(3), pp. 178–187.
  5. Lee, S., & Ward, K. (2020). Stress and parenting during the coronavirus pandemic. Retrieved from
  6. Felson, R. B. (1983). Aggression and violence between siblings. Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 46(4), pp. 271–285.
  7. Cappadocia, M. C., Weiss, J. A., & Pepler, D. (2012). Bullying experiences among children and youth with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol. 42(2), pp. 266–277.
  8. Constantino, J. N., Lajonchere, C., Lutz, M., Gray, T., Abbacchi, A., McKenna, K., … Todd, R. D. (2006). Autistic social impairment in the siblings of children with pervasive developmental disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 163(2), pp. 294–296.
  9. Kowal, A., Krull, J. L., Kramer, L., & Crick, N. R. (2002). Children’s perceptions of the fairness of parental preferential treatment and their socioemotional well-be Interpersonal Development, vol. 16(3), pp. 297–306.
  10. Turnbull, A. P., Summers, J. A., & Brotherson, M. J. (1986). Family life cycle: Theoretical and empirical implications and future directions for families with mentally retarded members. In J. J. Gallagher & P. M. Vietze (Eds.), Families of handicapped persons: Research, programs, and policy issues (pp. 445–477). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

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