When a child is struggling with a mental illness, the ripples are often felt through the whole family.
While parents set off on what can seem like an all-consuming journey of diagnoses, therapies and coping methods, the other children in the family may feel left behind, left to their own devices or like their needs aren’t as important.
It’s never a parent’s intention, of course, but experts say it’s a harsh reality. When another child’s emotions or behaviors demand more of mom or dad’s time and attention, something has to give – and it’s often the siblings who are giving it.
“Growing up with a sibling that has a mental illness can cause strain on relationships and dynamics within the family,” says Jennifer Maggar, an outpatient therapist at the Judson Center in Royal Oak. “As much as even the best parents may try, some children can feel left out or that they are not getting as much attention as the child with mental illness.”
The effects can be serious. “In some cases, this can cause resentment towards the sibling and acting out towards the parents,” she says.
Some siblings may even experience depression or anxiety symptoms because of it. Unfortunately, many parents don’t realize just how much of a problem it can be, and they may not be looking out for warning signs.
“I do not think that most parents are aware of the effects on siblings of children with mental illness,” Maggar explains. “It’s too easy to get caught up in everyday activities – driving kids to soccer, parent-teacher conferences, work – and sometimes parents forget to take a step back and enjoy the company of their children and continually be mindful of little discrepancies in the child’s normal behaviors that may occur, indicating stress in children.”
Parents can take some simple steps to help avoid problems and address them if they occur. For starters, be sure to “nurture the bond” not only between you and your other children, but also between your child with mental illness and his or her siblings, Maggar suggests.
“There are a myriad of ways to nurture bonds between siblings which are usually unique to the family and children involved, but some general guidelines for activities for the siblings would be to make sure the activity places the siblings on the same team, the activity highlights both skills of the children and that the children would have to work together to achieve a common goal,” she says. “For the reinforcement of the parent-child bond, I would recommend ‘mommy/daddy and me’ days where each individual child would get to plan an outing away from the other siblings.”
If your child who has a mental illness is being treated at a clinic, ask about whether any “sib shops” or support groups are offered for siblings. At the Judson Center, for example, a variety of supports are available for parents as well as siblings.
You might even ask for a referral for individual counseling for a sibling “where they can address concerns and feelings with their own therapist,” Maggar says.
Another important step is making sure lines of communication are open between you and your children. Kids should know that they can talk to mom or dad about their feelings anytime.
“Parents can use their one-on-one time with their child to open up communication where the child feels heard by the parent,” Maggar says. “Children that feel heard and understood tend to be more resilient and positive, which counteracts some of the possible negative effects – depressive (or) anxiety symptoms – that can happen when a child grows up with a sibling with a mental illness. Parents can do this by restating the child’s feeling and concerns and assisting the child in problem-solving skills.”
Despite the potential for feeling left out, growing up with a sibling who has special needs such as a mental illness also has many rewards, Maggar says.
“Children who grow up in a household with a sibling with a mental illness can be an experienced caregiver, empathetic towards others with mental illness, compassionate, supportive, resilient and independent,” she says.
Another way to help siblings is to show them how to cope during intense or challenging moments.
“Parents should know that modeling behavior is a powerful tool for children of all ages and abilities,” Maggar explains. “Children that have parents that are consistent and model healthy coping skills in dealing with stressful situations will in turn develop those skills appropriately.”
Brought to you by the Ethel & James Flinn Foundation. Find more information at flinnfoundation.org.