The frequency with which young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SENDs) were picked on or hurt by their siblings increased during the first lockdown in the UK, according to new research.

This longitudinal study investigated sibling conflict during and after the first Covid-19 lockdown and found that the frequency with which young people with SENDs picked on or hurt their siblings in contrast remained mostly stable during the lockdown.

Online questionnaires were completed by 504 parents of young people with SENDs at four time points between 23 March 2020 and 10 October 2020 (over half completed the questionnaire at multiple time points).

As lockdown progressed, young people with SENDs were more likely to be picked on or hurt by their siblings compared with earlier stages of the lockdown but there was no change in how frequently they harmed or picked on their siblings. After lockdown, both perpetration and victimisation decreased but not to the same rates as the first month of lockdown.

People with severe or complex needs had less sibling conflict

Young people with SENDs with severe or complex needs were somewhat protected from sibling conflict. Those who were minimally verbal were less likely to be involved in sibling conflict as perpetrators and victims. Additionally, those who had an EHCP were less likely to be victimised by siblings. 

The researchers say this might be because 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. 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 novel finding warrants further investigation in future research to explore some of the reasons why young people with complex or severe needs are somewhat protected from sibling conflict.

Lockdown and mental health of siblings

The authors said that these findings have implications for future pandemic-related lockdowns as they highlight the need for future work considering the effect of the Covid-19 lockdowns on the mental health of siblings of young people with SENDs. Such work is likely to inform support targeted at SENDs families considering the unique needs of parents, the young person with SENDs, and their siblings.

Spending extended periods of time at home appears to have a negative effect on sibling relationships in families with SENDs. This is not unexpected – spending more time together in close proximity provides more opportunity for conflict to arise.

This is supported by the finding that once schools had fully re-opened for face-to-face teaching, sibling conflict rates began to decrease. The scale of the problem, however, should be cause for alarm given that persistent sibling conflict in other studies is associated with poor outcomes in the short and long term.