Posted by Marlie Standen on July 13, 2022
When a child is struggling with mental illness, all members of the family may be involved and affected. It’s painful to see a loved one in emotional distress. In families with more than one child, parents often consider the impact for the sibling(s) and how to best support them. Talking openly about the sibling experience – the way siblings observe, make sense of and respond to what happens in the family when another child is struggling with mental illness – is incredibly important for the resilience and well-being of everyone in the family.
Parents often wonder if and when they should talk to siblings about mental illness and the related family experiences. Humans of all ages are quite intuitive and observant; if a child in the family is struggling with mental illness and experiencing emotional and behavioural changes, siblings are likely picking up on it. Siblings often notice when other family members are in distress or when family dynamics are strained. When these things are not openly discussed, siblings can feel anxious, confused and lonely. They need space and safety to make sense of these experiences and process their feelings. Parents have the opportunity to cultivate this space.
The sibling experience is complex, unique and influenced by numerous factors. Siblings often feel mixed, conflicting emotions – love, care and concern for their loved one while also feeling anger, resentment or fear. Feeling difficult emotions towards someone they love can also bring about feelings of guilt or shame. When siblings are attuned to the distress of other family members, they may take on certain roles and responsibilities as a way to cope. Siblings may come to withhold their emotions, strive for perfection or take on adult responsibilities in an attempt to ease distress in themselves and in their family members. Siblings may take on a protective or advocate role for their loved one. Alternatively, they may withdraw or distance themselves. These feelings are complex to navigate alone and these roles can have harmful effects on their own mental health. When parents can hold a safe space and foster open communication, siblings are better able to integrate their experiences in a healthy way that ultimately promotes well-being and resilience in themselves and in the family as a whole.
The foundation of holding space for children begins with parents’ own self-care and self-compassion. When parents take care of themselves, they nourish their own mental health and can be more available for their children. Many parents benefit from seeking support through family support groups or their own therapy. When parents attend to their own emotions in a self-compassionate way, they are more able to respond with compassion to difficult emotions in their children1.
When siblings witness their loved one in distress, they may begin to compare themselves to their loved one and come to feel as though their own stress and needs are less important. They may seem to ‘close off’ or they may minimize and dismiss their own difficulties. Reminders from their parents that they are seen, remembered and important can be very protective. Intentionally and consistently checking in with them about their lives, even if they do not share much, sends the message ‘I see you and there is space here for your experience too’. If parents notice changes in siblings, such as sharing less about their day or spending less time at home, sharing these observations and asking them how they are doing can show them that they are noticed, seen and cared for.
Holding space for siblings also means cultivating space to talk about their loved one’s mental illness and the related family dynamics. Curiosity can go a long way in these conversations. When parents start with an intention to learn about and witness the sibling’s experience, rather than starting with explanations or telling them what is happening, the parents may gain more understanding about where the sibling is at. With open-ended questions about what they are noticing in their loved one/the family, how they are making sense of it and how they feel about it, siblings are invited to express their perspective. This then gives parents the opportunity to actively listen, validate and identify where the sibling needs support. It is common that siblings may take time to open up about this – patience and consistently in offering them space is important.
As parents actively listen, they may hear opportunities to provide age-appropriate information and context that can help siblings better understand what is happening, especially if the sibling has misinformation or misinterpretations. Remaining curious and avoiding assumptions about how the sibling feels also creates the opportunity for parents to help the sibling navigate their complex emotions. For example, if siblings criticize themselves for thinking or feeling a certain way, parents can validate and normalize that their feelings make sense given their experiences. It can be helpful to validate their emotions – such as anger or fear – as responses to situations and behaviours out of their control rather than general feelings about their loved one. Further, parents can validate and honour that two feelings can be true and valid at once – a sibling can feel anger towards their loved one’s behaviours and also feel care, love and concern for them. Parents can also speak openly with siblings about support options, such as support groups or their own therapy.
Families affected by mental illness face unique challenges and they also have the opportunity to enhance family resilience and strengthen family relationships. These dynamics are challenging to navigate and there is certainly no ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ way to do it. What truly matters is the parental intention to hold space for their children and approach challenging conversations with curiosity, compassion and trust in their intuition.
1 Lathren, C., Bluth, K., & Zvara Bharathi. (2020). Parent Self-Compassion and Supportive Responses to Child Difficult Emotion: An Intergenerational Theoretical Model Rooted in Attachment. J Fam Theory Rev 12(3) 368-381. doi:10.1111/jftr.12388.
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