When my son was seven, he had his first psychiatric hospitalization. He had become incredibly afraid of going to school and was often unable to get there. He had nightmares almost every night and was frightened by television shows he used to enjoy. He started talking about suicide and began to hurt himself. In short, his world was filled with pain and fear. It finally led to a hospital admission.
I took his four year old brother to see him. He watched with wide eyes as the many locks on the psychiatric unit were opened to let us in and then the doors were locked behind us. He looked at his older brother and asked, “Don’t you just feel like a monkey in a cage?” “No,” his older brother vehemently said, “It’s safe in here and nothing can hurt me.” So from the beginning it was clear that they were going to have two very different views of the treatment, the behaviors and the impact of mental health needs.
Mental health issues impact not just one child, but the entire family. When parents have the chance, they can share with each other their sadness, anxiety, anger and frustration. Even though they are also profoundly impacted, siblings have few places to get information, safely vent or even get a break. When talking about my two sons, I often say that one has a diagnosis and the other experiences “sibling spillover.” When I use this term to a group of parents, they nod their heads with recognition. Sibling spillover happens in a lot of homes.
The impact on siblings whose brother or sister has significant mental health needs is just beginning to be studied. Until now, most research has been focused on siblings whose brother or sister has developmental delays, autism or chronic illness and even that is uncommon. Emily Rubin, Director of Sibling Support at the Shriver Center, says that “the most effective intervention is for parents or guardians to talk openly with siblings at an early age, acknowledging their complicated family lives in age-appropriate language.” She wrote an excellent brochure for parents, one of few available resources.
Most siblings whose brother or sister has special needs notice that much of the attention, resources, time and energy seems to be unfairly divided. And siblings can feel angry, resigned and ignored. But when your brother or sister also has behaviors that can be aggressive, bizarre, frightening or embarrassing, there’s even more to cope with.
Siblings have a variety of coping mechanisms. Some become the “good child,’ others withdraw and some may even mimick the behavior that seems to get all the attention. When they grow up, many go into “helping” professions (teacher, therapist, etc.) while others move across the country. At least for a while.
As for my two sons, I was advised that things would get better as they got older. My younger son went from saying that his brother was “a good boy who did bad things” to saying that he was a “terrible brother.” I noticed that my older son often got along better with adults than peers and waited for the day they would both be young adults. Gradually, they rediscovered the common ground that comes out of sharing experiences as a family. Siblings in the same family often see things differently and that’s okay. Maybe that’s the way it should be.