Helping Children Cope With a Sibling’s Mental Illness

Emotional or mental illness in children and teens can be extremely difficult for parents to handle, and understandably so.

As challenging as it is for parents, however, your other children suffer as well. Unfortunately, kids lack the emotional maturity and understanding that adults possess, and they may struggle to understand the situation or react appropriately.

Over time, and with the right support, you can help your children understand and accept a situation that affects the entire family.

How Siblings May Be Affected by Mental Illness

Growing up with a sibling with an emotional or mental health disorder can be confusing for kids, especially when they’re younger.

Children understand sicknesses and injuries such as sore throats or broken arms, but mental disorders are essentially invisible. The only evidence they see is their sibling’s potentially erratic behavior. Without the benefit of age and understanding, children may believe that they’ve done something wrong to make sister angry or that she simply doesn’t love them anymore.

Fear and worry are also common in siblings of children with emotional challenges, and kids may become concerned that they will develop the same disorder. Kids are sometimes embarrassed about their sibling’s condition or the behavior it causes. Consequently, they may withdraw socially from their friends to avoid having to talk about it.

Parents can also expect kids to feel some resentment surrounding the time, energy and attention you must devote to your sick child. This may seem unfair to them, and because they don’t understand the severity of the problem, they may perceive that their sister gets special treatment.

All of these emotions can lead to kids feeling guilty or selfish because they don’t want to have unkind thoughts toward a beloved family member. Some children even develop their own anxiety or depression problems as a result.

Talking with Kids about a Family Member’s Mental Illness

To help children cope most effectively with all of their conflicting and confusing feelings, parents should talk with a mental health professional to learn the best approach.

A child’s mental illness affects the entire family. Your other children will have many questions and concerns, and it’s important that you are prepared to address them. When talking with kids, parents must communicate at an age-appropriate level, but it’s never wise to try to hide or cover up the obvious.

Younger children may not need as many details, but older school-age children and teenagers may want more specifics. Answering all questions directly and honestly will reassure kids and help them understand and handle their feelings.

Supporting Kids Who Have Mentally Ill Siblings

For some kids trying to cope with a sibling’s mental illness, open conversations with parents and other family members about the disorder may be all they need. Other kids, however, may need more support.

Watch for signs that your children are struggling to cope with the situation. They may have trouble sleeping, changes in appetite, or physical symptoms like frequent headaches or stomachaches. Some kids also may show other signs of stress, including poor concentration or a loss of interest in regular activities.

Many children who are troubled about a mental health issue in the family will benefit from one-on-one counseling or family counseling. A support group designed specifically for siblings of mentally ill children may be helpful, as it will show them that they are not alone and that other kids can relate to their feelings.

Ideally, whatever outlet you choose to help your mentally ill child also will provide the proper support for the rest of the family. Some residential treatment facilities for troubled teens or for those with mental or emotional health problems use an inclusive, family-oriented approach to treatment.

If you have other children in the home, consider selecting a facility that uses a more holistic treatment approach, as it will benefit the entire family when mental illness strikes.