If your child has a mental or behavioural health issue such as ADHD, anxiety disorder, or autism, you are probably used to feelings such as exhaustion, frustration, confusion, and worry. And then of course there is the guilt – is it somehow your fault? Are you doing enough for them? Are you a bad parent if you lose your patience?
If you have other children at home, these feelings of guilt can become even worse as you inevitably spend more time, energy and money on the child with challenges.
What can be done to ensure that when one child suffers from mental health issues, the others don’t feel overlooked?
How Siblings Are Affected
There is not a one-size-fits-all reaction to having a brother or sister with mental health issues. But there are common themes and concerns that siblings deal with.
Less Positive Family Time: Because so much of the family’s attention is elsewhere, siblings are forced to adjust to less family time. They may also experience a drastic change in quality time spent with the affected sibling.
Lots and Lots of Questions: Mental health conditions can be difficult to unravel and siblings have many questions they need answers to. They may wonder what to expect from their sibling, and how to best help their brother or sister. Oftentimes in the stress of helping the troubled child, addressing these questions is not considered a priority and siblings are left in the dark.
Safety and Coping Difficulties: Siblings can feel stressed watching their parents be stressed. Then there is the stress that they can face if they are the physical or emotional targets of their brother or sister’s acting out.
Anxiety and Worry: Not only do brothers and sisters worry about their affected sibling and their parents, but they also worry about how they will help manage their sibling’s illness when their parents are deceased. On top of this, siblings may not feel as comfortable sharing everyday worries because they know their parents are already overloaded.
The Long Term Negative Effects of a Sibling Feeling Neglected
And long-term effects can result from a child feeling their sibling doesn’t like them, too. Research from the Netherlands’ Utrecht University that examined the effects of sibling relationships on future psychological health found that “children and adolescents with warmer and less conflictive sibling relationships show significantly less problem behaviour, as well as children and adolescents who experience less differential treatment.”
7 (Doable) Ways to Meet Your Other Children’s Needs
1. Allow Your Children to Express Negative Feelings
Just like you probably have some negative feelings about what is going on, your children do, too. It is important that you allow them to express what they really feel without fear or shame. Acknowledge their feelings and make sure they understand that, regardless of what is going on with their affected sibling, their concerns, big and small, matter.
2. Educate Your Children
Your children will have many questions about their sibling’s mental health issues and behavioural problems and you will be one of their main sources of information. Make time to open up discussions about what is happening and allow them to ask questions.
If your child is not asking questions, don’t think they don’t have any. It could be that they are too worried about upsetting you. It can help to take initiative and address the questions it’s normal for siblings of children with mental health challenges to address, such as:
What is the mental illness and how did my sibling get it?
Will I get this issue too?
How are we going to treat it?
How should I react to it?
How should I talk about this with other people?
What can I do to help them?
How will I take care of them when you can’t?
Note that just like discussing sex with your children has to be flexible because of their age and comprehension, discussing mental health conditions will get more complex as your children get older.
3. Provide Support and Tools
Managing a mental health condition is not a one-time thing. Therefore, provide your children with a number of options they can use to help manage their feelings, fears, and concerns.
Introduce them to stress-reduction tools such as journaling, exercise, meditation, or yoga.
Help them find a hobby or interest that allows them to express themselves and feel special such as art, music, or dance.
Include them in family therapy sessions or individual therapy sessions where they can learn skills to help themselves and their sibling.
Find support groups where they can talk to other children who are in a similar situation. This will also lessen the burden of having to provide all the answers and all the support.
4. Teach Your Children How to Manage Disruptive Behaviours
If your mentally challenged child is targeting one of your other children, make it a priority to learn and then teach your children how to handle themselves and how to effectively manage the situation. Even if your children are not being targeted, they will need to learn appropriate responses to everyday situations that usually lead to disruptions.
5. Set Expectations
Teach your other children how to treat and/or manage their sibling when they are away from you, i.e. at school. Your other children may need to learn new techniques that allow them to interact with their affected sibling well. Be open to finding a skilled professional who can help you manage this.
6. Make The Time You Do Have Together Matter
Time can feel sparse indeed when dealing with a challenged child, so when it comes to giving attention to the others, focus on quality when quantity can’t happen. Spend ten minutes before bedtime catching up one-on-one, or make plans for a monthly date with just them.
It’s also a good idea to have some kind of structure to the time you spend with your other children. A routine can allow them to relax and not worry about when they next get time with you. Whatever works with your schedule, find times to consistently touch base with them and stick with it.
7. Acknowledge Rough Times But Focus on the Positives
There are benefits to growing up with a challenged sibling and your other children can reap these benefits if you help them see them. Thank them for their patience, point out that they are learning how to be understanding of other people, and praise them when you see their kindness and consideration.
Remember that talking about mental health shouldn’t take over your family time, but nor should it be a one-off. The reality is that the mental health issues in childhood will evolve as your child does, and your family’s discussions should evolve and be flexible too.
Do you have a child with emotional and mental health challenges? What ways have you helped your other children manage? Share below.
Photos by Angels Wings, Anthony Kelly, Garland Cannon, Joe Green, KOMU News