Supporting Positive Sibling Relationships When One Child Has a Mental Health Challenge

When one or more children in the household have mental health diagnoses, what happens to the other siblings? Often, as a result of the behaviors and crises caused by the mental illness or substance abuse, the other siblings get less attention.

Consequently, they may seek attention in negative ways, including copying the negative sibling behaviors they see in the child with mental health issues. Siblings may be at risk for the onset of mental illness as well.

Trying to balance everyone’s needs can create extra challenges and tax a family that is already emotionally and physically pushed to the limit. Here are some tips for parenting siblings to create more harmonious family and sibling relationships.

Prioritizing Needs

Having children with mental illness often feels like constantly putting out fires. When multiple fires are burning simultaneously, it’s natural to focus on the most dangerous one. In a family setting, this means that a child with mental health issues is likely going to get the most attention, whether it is negative or positive. A sibling may feel their needs are unmet, causing hurt, anger, or resentment to build and manifest in negative sibling rivalry.

In addition to meeting the needs of the child with mental health issues, guardians need to be aware of the other child or children’s needs. Sometimes, this may mean that the children with mental illness have a meltdown while a parent gives their full attention to another child’s homework or questions for a few minutes. This might feel counterintuitive, but sometimes scenarios like these are necessary to maintain balance in the family.

It is also important to realize that siblings are at risk for mental health issues as well. Even if they have not yet exhibited the same symptoms as their diagnosed sibling, the stress of living with someone with mental illness can trigger anxiety, depression, or trauma symptoms in other family members. Keeping a close watch for symptoms and behaviors in siblings is another challenge that parents face when they struggle with mental health.

Celebrating Sibling Differences

Sibling rivalry is normal but can be even more challenging when there is mental illness in the home. Rather than giving negative attention to behaviors associated with mental health or risk spending too much time addressing those behaviors, parents can help celebrate each siblings’ differences. Some of the ways this can be helpful include:

  • Focusing on Strengths – Too often, parents give the most attention to negative sibling behaviors, which can be damaging to sibling relationships. By focusing on the things that each child does well, parents let kids know that they and their siblings are loved and appreciated for their uniqueness.
  • Catching Them Being Good – Praise is actually important for teen growth. When parents give attention to positive sibling behaviors, children are more likely to behave positively.
  • Withholding Judgments on Behaviors – Using words like “good” and “bad” can create negative ideas and judgments about behaviors. Parents can respond to behaviors without having to label them.
  • Normalizing Mental Illness – Parents can normalize mental illness by talking about it and letting children know that they are just as valuable and worthy as anyone else.

Teaching Healthy Sibling Support

Often, dependencies and co-dependencies are created among siblings when there is mental illness in the home. One way to lessen this likelihood is to teach siblings to get along and to support one another in healthy ways. They can learn more about the mental health condition or substance abuse issue and find positive ways to provide sibling support.

For example, one sibling might offer to exercise with a sibling who has mental health issues to help them stay healthy and active. Moreover, doing healthy activities together will build their relationship. Working as a family to promote mental wellness creates an environment of beneficial support.

Building Confidence and Healthy Sibling Relationships

When siblings feel valued and are involved in supporting one another, they become more confident in themselves and their place in the family. This confidence and sense of unconditional love helps them become more resilient. This is how parents can model a healthy relationship.

Siblings can understand that sometimes a child with mental health challenges needs more attention from a parent. However, parents can also work to ensure that siblings do not get constantly pushed aside or neglected.

By involving siblings in mental health support for each other and the family, a special bond can be formed that actually strengthens family relationships, rather than stressing them. With careful attention and open communication, a sibling can become a support and advocate instead of a rival.

If you need help with parenting siblings when one child has a mental health challenge, do not hesitate to reach out to Teen Rehab and we can help you find the right support for your family.