Sibshops Supports Kids who have Siblings with Disabilities 

By Laurie Bertke

Growing up with a sibling who has a disability can be difficult, and it’s not uncommon for brothers and sisters to struggle with feelings of frustration, anger or negativity at times.

Sibshops is a program offering peer support to these kids, giving them a space to process their feelings and talk with others who understand. Wendy Smenner and Kate Schwartz have facilitated the Saturday morning workshops together for about ten years. The program is co-sponsored locally by the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West and the Autism Society of Northwest Ohio, and it is offered free of charge. 

The Sibshops curriculum was created by the Sibling Support Project and is used throughout the United States and Canada, as well as in a number of other countries around the world.  

Smenner, a Parent Mentor for the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, says supporting siblings of children with disabilities has long been a cause close to her heart as a mother of two boys, one of whom has a disability. Siblings often struggle with trying to understand why their brother or sister is different, and grapple with feelings of loss, frustration or resentment. “Their world is just not typical,” says Smenner. “A lot of times these sibs are the ones suffering the most in the family.”

Schwartz, executive director of the Autism Society of Northwest Ohio and mother of two children on the autism spectrum, says the premise of Sibshops is to let brothers and sisters of kids with disabilities know that they’re not alone. “We’re not treatment or therapy. We’re just a support,” she says.

Sometimes siblings of children with disabilities feel as though all the attention goes to their brother or sister. They might think, “My mom and dad are dealing so much with my sibling. My problems are so small in comparison that I can’t share them,” says Schwartz. 

“We see it in our own families. We can relate to these kids. We can understand that — I would be frustrated too,” says Schwartz.  “A lot of what we do is reframing and rethinking about situations that could be negative or frustrating for kids.”

At past workshops, children have participated in “disability simulations” to get a sense of what it is like to use a wheelchair or walker, or how it feels to have sensory issues. This helps them better understand their siblings and consider the idea that “my sibling isn’t trying to give me a hard time; they’re having a hard time because this is how their body responds,” explains Schwartz.

Workshops also include recreational activities, crafts, group discussions, guest speakers and cooking activities. The program is open to children ages 8 to 16, which allows older children to mentor the younger ones. 

Schwartz says she has seen sibling relationships repaired through Sibshops. As a parent, she finds it encouraging to see children with negative feelings about their brother or sister come to develop a new appreciation for the uniqueness of their sibling. 

“For me, the coolest part of Sibshops is watching the growth of everybody,” says Schwartz. “We’ve had some kids there for a good amount of time and who keep coming back year after year, and now they are stepping into leadership roles. It just makes the work that we do come full circle.”

Upcoming dates for Sibshops are Jan. 15, Feb. 19, March 19 and April 9. Workshops are held from 10am-1 pm at the Alternate Learning Center, 3939 Wrenwood Rd. For more information and to register, contact Wendy Smenner at 419-214-3066 or wsmenner@esclakeeriewest.org.