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When I call it sibling spillover, other parents nod their heads

October 9th, 2019

“That’s okay”, my 9-year old son said, “I can read the rest myself.”

Reading had been one of our sacred times.  His older brother, who had meltdowns several times a day, was not allowed to come in and disrupt bedtime reading. It was a hard and fast rule.  My 9-year old and I read books far beyond his reading level, as his interests ranged widely, but he was catching up.  Still, it was our special, untouched time together and we cherished it.

This night was a hard one.  My older son came down the hall, right up to his brother’s bedroom door, crying and raging.  He flung himself on the carpet, never crossing the threshold, but we could certainly hear him and feel his intensity.  He was still revving up and this meltdown would continue for a while.  So my younger son dismissed me, sadly but firmly.  He then finished the chapter by himself.  I hadn’t realized that he could.  He’d been pretending the book was too hard.

He told me the next night he didn’t need me to do anything but say goodnight.  “I won’t hear how the story ends,” I said.  “I’ll tell you,” he responded. We never read again at night together and I felt a pang each night for months.

This is the way it goes for the siblings of children with mental health needs.  Their parents are torn and there are days they get scraps of attention when they should get big swaths of it.  They learn how to meet their own needs, often before they are ready to.  Like my son who sent his melting-down brother and me away so he could have a quiet bedtime, they often choose what works over what they need or really want.

My younger son played soccer for a number of years.  There were home games and away games as well as practices during the week.  Although I dropped off and picked him up from practice, I attended nearly every game, a promise I made to myself.  Sometimes we would be in the car together or with teammates as we drove to away games and talk about anything except home life and his brother.  Other times, he would commandeer the radio and play whatever he liked, loudly. It was a kind of oasis in time, where we could pretend we were just another mom and son with no other worries.  He relished that time when he had his mom all to himself.

Parents share openly the impact of their child with mental health needs on their time, their finances and even their ability to work a full time job. We describe how our child’s needs are so outsized that it demands every scrap of time, attention and resources we have to try to meet those needs.  It also impacts marriages, relationships with relatives who don’t “get it” and sometimes longtime friendships.  But those things are about us, how we feel, adjust and cope.

The impact on the other child – or children – is something we often have little control over.  Our child with mental health needs may scream threats at their brothers and sisters, disrupt their lives and make them scared and angry.  We can feel powerless, guilty and saddened.  We don’t have easy remedies.

I first realized the deep impact on my younger son when he was only four.  His then-7-year old brother had wild rages where he overturned furniture (how could one small adrenalized boy do that, anyway?), threw whatever was near his hand and maintained this for up to three hours.  My little four-year-old learned to run to a special play area at the foot of his bed, shut and lock the door and pull out the toys he could only use during the be-safe-now times.  He did this several times a week, at least.  One day, a friend asked a question about his brother.  “My brother,” he told her, “is a very good boy who does very, very bad things.”  He also said he was afraid his brother would hurt his mom.

Therapist are quick to diagnose siblings with depression, anxiety or even, PTSD.  Those may all be accurate, but when I talk to other parents, I call it sibling spillover.  I‘ve never had to explain it.  Hundreds of parents have just nodded their heads and told me how their other children have been profoundly affected by the one with mental health needs. And by our inability to give the undivided attention and resources they often need.

We develop strategies, however, like going to soccer games without the other brother with mental health needs. We parent one way for one child, another way for the other.  We look for experiences where the sibling without needs can feel smart, brave, talented and whole.  We love unconditionally and extravagantly.  Mostly, it seems to work.

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