Siblings and Mental Illness

Parenting Matters

Siblings and Mental Illness

Talk to kids about a sibling’s mental illness

By Rick Edwards, LPC

The whole family is impacted when a child is diagnosed with a mental illness, especially that child’s siblings. Mental illness can send shockwaves through a family that can unsettle well siblings and lead them to feel as though they are spiraling into a place of confusion, despair, hopelessness, anger, and grief. While some siblings can navigate the maze of confusing emotions, others depend on parents or other family members for support and understanding. Friends and other support systems such as schools and churches can serve as resources, but some children may require direct intervention by mental health professionals.

When it comes to speaking with siblings about a mentally ill brother or sister it is important to keep in mind some very important dynamics that may be in play for the un-afflicted sibling.

In the acute stage of a mental health crisis, siblings might witness some very bizarre and often upsetting behaviors by the child experiencing a crisis. Sometimes the sibling may even be the target of some of that aggressive or bizarre behavior. Once the crisis is over everyone tends to breathe a sigh of relief and hope that this difficult time is now behind them. However, the child with mental health issues will likely continue to need help and might even go into crisis again.

Getting past the denial that a problem exists and that it has an impact on others is a major hurdle in helping siblings understand another sibling’s mental health issues. Not many un-afflicted siblings escape experiencing at least one (if not several) traumatic experiences as they age.

Traumas include learning about the psychiatric diagnosis of a brother or sister for the first time and witnessing the family confusion and stress that often leads to heated arguments or conflict. Additionally, it is troubling to witness a sibling's: severe drug abuse, physical threats or assaults, suicide attempts, or bizarre and frightening behavior. For many kids, the home can become a battleground and sadly, they must watch mental illness take over a loved one before their very eyes.

When working with siblings of children with mental health issues it is important to acknowledge the cost that they and their parents have paid. Some siblings report that they experience dual lives as they try to conceal their pain, confusion, and strife from others. Some siblings create the appearance that they lead a carefree and happy life by not telling others about mental illness or family chaos. Understandably, this can limit the quality of connections with peers, because a dual life often prevents genuine, open relationships with others.

Parents should encourage honest and open discussions with people a child trusts to help de-stigmatize the mental health issue and build stronger, healthier relationships with others. Addressing the concerns that many older siblings may have about genetics is also important, especially with the increasing evidence of the role of biology in severe mental illnesses. Similarly, a well documented sibling concern is fear about passing mental illness on to one or more of their future children.

When speaking with siblings about their brother or sister, fostering a sense of hope is as critical to that child as it is to the patient. Support their efforts to learn more about a sibling’s diagnosis. You may even encourage them to seek professional help to better understand their sibling and their own experiences.

Finally, it is important to note that many adult siblings claim that their experiences with a sibling diagnosed with a mental illness has made them feel more independent, dependable, compassionate and tolerant of others. Often, the experience of mental illness in one’s family has leads people to re-think the importance of life events, develop a healthy perspective, and value meaningful and long lasting relationships with others.

Originally featured on the Health Channel.

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