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Navigating Sibling Relationships with Mental Health

By: Alicia Ross


Many families go through times when one child needs a little more attention than the other(s). Maybe they are celebrating an exciting milestone like a birthday or graduation, or maybe they are going through a hard time at school or at home. Naturally, there are periods when one of your kids deserves a little extra recognition, or needs a little more of your help. But what do you do when one child consistently requires more attention than the other(s)? How do you navigate family dynamics when one sibling is struggling with a mental illness? While there are no simple solutions to these questions, we have compiled some research-based advice here to help.


First and foremost, it’s important to educate all your children on mental illness (https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/counselling/mental-health-issues-in-childhood.htm), and specifically the issues present within your family. You don’t need to be an expert to do this — just talk to them about it! Teach them some tools to better manage their emotions, and provide support for times when they may not be able to do so on their own. This article from Harley Therapy written by its founder, Dr. Sheri Jacobson, provides some ideas for siblings, such as introducing stress-reduction tools like yoga or journaling, helping them find their hobbies, or bringing them to therapy or support groups https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/counselling/mental-health-issues-in-childhood.htm

An article from Child Mind Institute (https://childmind.org/article/siblings-under-stress/) includes similar advice about getting kids out of the house, focusing on nurturing their relationships with friends and otherwise socializing them beyond just the family unit. It is also great to plan fun “alone time” activities with the child(ren) who may require less individual attention on a day-to-day basis such as going to see a movie, talking a walk, etc. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfyXlcwX4RI&list=PLdLpWGRCe3SO5vPDD4GE9zEkp06WxQ8Jw#action=share). This one-on-one time creates a space to check in with each child, talking about how they are feeling lately, what has been bothering them, etc.  


While it’s great to have friend-time, extra-curricular activities-time, and parent-time, I’m sure you want to develop, nurture, and strengthen their relationship with their siblings as well. According to the Child Mind Institute article, it is common for siblings to mimic the disruptive or otherwise negative behaviors of their struggling sibling, as well as for them to be fearful they may have a mental health disorder themselves (https://childmind.org/article/siblings-under-stress/). Siblings are vulnerable, so it’s important to look out for signs, however it is equally crucial to reassure them that things like stress and anger are normal emotions, and not necessarily indicative of a disorder. 


In terms of handling issues between siblings such as rivalry and fights, the Center for Parenting Education has a very comprehensive page entitled “Coping with Sibling Rivalry” with advice on everything from why children fight to conflict resolution (https://centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/sibling-rivalry/coping-sibling-rivalry/). This fantastic resource includes concrete examples and expert techniques such as the “notepad, pencil, one story” approach of having children collaborate to create one story of what happened, facilitating understanding of the other perspective. More generally, it suggests coming up with family rules, teaching problem solving, prohibiting violence, and not rewarding kids for the arguing by spending long periods of time discussing what happened (https://centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/sibling-rivalry/coping-sibling-rivalry/)


Lastly, as also mentioned in the Center for Parenting Education article, “treat your children as the unique individuals they are” (https://centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/sibling-rivalry/coping-sibling-rivalry/). Be proactive, observant, and sensitive to the needs and wants of each individual child, not just those that are struggling most at the time. However, every family dynamic is different, and this is much easier said than done, so go easy on yourself and practice self care too! Nurturing your own outside-of-the-family relationships, going to therapy, or joining support groups (like YHAV!) will help decrease your own stress, reducing the general stress level in your home (https://childmind.org/article/siblings-under-stress/).


For sibling advice tailored to specific needs of individual disorders, check out the resources below:


ADHD: https://www.additudemag.com/sibling-rivalry-adhd-positive-parenting-tips/

Anxiety: https://www.turnaroundanxiety.com/37317-2/

Autism: https://www.autism-society.org/living-with-autism/autism-and-your-family/siblings/

Bipolar: https://www.bphope.com/kids-children-teens/7-ways-to-support-the-siblings-of-a-child-with-bipolar/#:~:text=%231%20Be%20honest%20about%20the,or%20she%20is%20not%20special.

Depression (and others): https://www.mghclaycenter.org/parenting-concerns/talking-children-siblings-mental-illness/

Eating Disorders: https://www.feast-ed.org/a-seat-at-the-table-supporting-siblings-of-eating-disorder-patients/#:~:text=Encourage%20open%20communication.,Maintain%20appropriate%20boundaries.

OCD: https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/ocd-and-siblings/

Learning Disabilities: https://johncardinaloconnorschool.org/tips-to-help-parents-talk-to-children-about-a-siblings-learning-disability#:~:text=Call%20It%20What%20It%20Is,their%20sibling's%20Sensory%20Processing%20Disorder.



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