Siblings of Children with Mental Health Disorders and Disabilities

We spend so much time talking about children with mental health disorders and disabilities that it is sometimes easy to forget their typical developing siblings. We understand high functioning anxiety and depression and know that you can’t always judge a book by its’ cover. We should never assume that just because everything looks good on the outside that there aren’t some difficulties a person is experiencing on the inside. Children who have a sibling who struggles with mental health or a physical disability deal with different kinds of emotions and stress, but are often the best at hiding it.

Often times, we unknowingly rely on the sibling who does not appear to have anything noticeably wrong. Even if we don’t openly ask for them to do anything, we unconsciously expect that they don’t need adults in the same way. We talk about them being mature and able to handle things. We expect them to take care of themselves while we try to figure out how to best help the child whom we can physically see needs help.

Parents and adults a like (teachers in a classroom), feel that guilt that they can’t give every child the same time and attention. We usually know that we aren’t providing the same type of help and support. But don’t beat yourself up too much because it is a necessary thing. Not every child requires the same support and attention. However, when it’s too out of balance, you might start to see different behaviors to achieve the same kind of attention their sibling is getting. This is when we see physical and or verbal acting out or the opposite such as low assertiveness skills. Some children make as little “noise” as possible so they get good grades, stay out of any trouble, and don’t talk about their problems.

A few things that children with siblings who have a mental health disorder or disability struggle with include:

  1. Feeling like they need to be perfect: Many times these children don’t want to cause any more upset. They are often left out of the loop on some level, but know that there is likely anxiety, frustration, and general upset. Therefore, they compensate and try to make things better by doing their best to be completely perfect. They don’t want to be a burden to their parents efforts. Remember, that kids see and hear all things. Logically this leads to stress which can develop into an anxiety disorder.
  2. Difficulty expressing emotions: With typically developing siblings, you expect complaining about each other on a regular basis. This is not the case when one sibling is “typical” and the other is not. Often times, these siblings become masters at squashing their emotions down because they feel as though they “shouldn’t” be upset with their sibling because of whatever disability or disorder they have. So even if their sibling does something they find embarrassing, they no longer say it because adults and even their friends will tell them that it’s mean.
  3. Feeling as though their problems are minimized: It’s easy to disregard an academic or friendship problem when another child is dealing with motor issues or suicidal thoughts. An issue like that from a typically developing sibling will often be brushed off and told something generic like to stay strong and it will pass. These children begin to internalize that their problems aren’t really problems and make them doubt themselves on whether or not to tell people what’s going on if they do feel confused or upset.
  4. Feeling isolated: Having a younger or older sibling is one way kids can identify what they have in common with each other. Children with siblings with disabilities or disorders may not have the same kind of peer group. They may be more hesitant to talk about their siblings in general. They often worry about inviting friends over to their house because they feel unsure of how their friends may react.
  5. Growing up quickly: While children are often kept in the dark, we know they pick up on every little nuance there is. They’ll be able to tell when a conflict is coming or when someone is overtired and frustrated. They’ll rely on themselves to be “perfect” and adapt to a situation that can only be maintained and controlled by adults. However, they’ll often do what they can to be helpful. They’ll learn about things earlier than typical for their own development. And they will apply that. They’ll receive compliments about being mature for their age, but remember that while they may know more, they should still only be expected of what is appropriate.

Check out some of the things that can be done to help support your child. Doing simple things like reading together at bedtime, spending one on one time together, or assisting in a task they don’t necessarily need help with can help children feel reassured, calm, and happy.

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