If you have them, there were probably times growing up when you wish you didn’t. And if you don’t have them, there were probably times growing up when you wish you did.
National Siblings Day is an official commemorative day in the U.S., recognized by Congress, The Office of The President of the United States, and the governors of 49 states. It was founded in 1999 by New York native Claudia Evart after losing both her siblings when she was young. She created the Siblings Day Foundation in 1999, a non-profit organization with a simple goal: to create National Siblings Day and give people a day to formally recognize the special bond that exists between siblings. The date, April 10th, has special significance for the founder: it’s the birthday of her late sister.
President Clinton signed a Presidential Proclamation in 2000 recognizing National Siblings Day. President Bush renewed the proclamation in 2008. In 2016, President Obama released this special statement honoring the day:
A Message from The White House: March 18, 2016
“The diverse traditions and experiences that make up our lives at home become the foundations of who we are as people, and the bonds of family have remained at the heart of America’s story since our earliest days. On our journey to self-discovery, siblings are around when we need them most, offering a sense of shared understanding that only they can know…Through life’s many chapters, brothers and sisters, and even friends who are just as close, know the power unconditional love and friendship hold to lift us up, make us our best selves, and help us reach for our higher aspirations.”
We couldn’t agree more. Siblings are special. In some cases, they’re the longest relationships we have in life – almost always longer than the relationships we have with parents or friends.
No one doubts the significance of sibling relationships, but parents of teens might add that parenting teen siblings comes with a host of special challenges.
Parenting Teen Siblings
In this post, the challenges we’ll address aren’t the typical ones, such as who gets to drive the car on what day, why Sibling A gets to stay out until eleven o’clock when Sibling B has to be home by ten o’clock, or why Sibling A gets away with literally everything including murder when Sibling B gets blamed for literally everything short of murder that happens around the house. This post will address the challenges a parent might face when one of their teens struggles with an alcohol, substance use, or mental health disorder and the other (or others) do not.
It’s a tricky wrinkle in family dynamics that deserves attention.
If you’re reading this, the chances are you’re a busy parent – the assumption being you have more two or more teens in your house (one of whom is struggling) and you’re occupied with parenting all of them as well as keeping up with everything else going on in your life: work, friends, the rest of the family, and who-knows-what-else, depending on your particular circumstances. So: we’ll cut to the chase, and offer our suggestions on how to handle teen siblings in this specific situation.
Five Tips for Managing Teen Sibling Dynamics
(When One is in Treatment or Struggling with A Substance Use or Mental Health Disorder)
1. Full Disclosure
First, the other teens need to know what’s going on. With very few exceptions, secrets undermine trust: it’s that simple. Second, acknowledge to the non-struggling teen that the family will likely dedicate more time, energy, and resources to the struggling teen that the fa family does to them. It may not feel fair to the non-struggling teen, but that’s the reality of the situation.
2. Validate Difficult Emotions
The non-struggling teen may feel a broad range of emotions that make them uncomfortable or they think they should not be feeling. Let them know it’s perfectly natural – and there’s nothing wrong – with feeling angry, resentful, bitter, sad, ignored, or left out of the family’s priorities. Give them a safe space to express all these emotions without fear. Help them find a way to understanding both their own emotions and what their sibling is going through. If the non-struggling teen has trouble coming to peace with the situation, then offer them the chance to talk to a professional counselor or therapist: sometimes what they really need is to talk – and vent, cry, curse, whatever – to an objective third party whose purpose is to help them, not the struggling sibling.
3. Reinforce the Need to Support All Family Members
Families need to hang together to get through rough times. If one sibling is struggling or in treatment, that definitely qualifies as a rough time. Explain the situation to the non-struggling teen by teaching them about the disease model of substance use and mental health disorders: they’re chronic, relapsing diseases, like diabetes, cancer, heart conditions, asthma, auto-immune diseases, and many others. Form a hypothetical: if their sibling received a diagnosis of diabetes or cancer, the family would rally behind them and support them by any means necessary, because that’s what families do – and it’s the right thing to do. Also tell them that in those cases, they’d likely feel all the difficult emotions mentioned in (2) above – and that’s okay. Feeling those emotions doesn’t make them a bad person: it’s how they process them that counts.
4. Include Them in the Therapeutic Process
Most treatment programs prioritize family engagement in the healing and recovery process – siblings as well as parents. Whether or not siblings participate in treatment typically depends on the opinion of the therapists/counselors/psychiatrists and the input of the struggling teen. One advantage of including siblings is the simple fact that in almost all cases, siblings know and see more than parents do. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say siblings know everything. While this is not always true, think back: if you had siblings, did you cover for them? Did you hide the cigarettes? Did you run interference when your sibling snuck out of the house, or help with excuses when they missed curfew? Food for thought.
5. Make Special Time for the Non-Struggling Teen
This is very important. It may be hard to carve the time out of your already packed schedule, but it needs to happen. It needs to happen even if – especially if – the non-struggling teen says “I’m all good” or “I’m cool with you not coming to my game” or something similar when you suggest some one-on-one quality time. Take them to dinner, a movie, a special event, a concert, or even a small getaway vacay, if possible. Make it their time. Let them dictate the conversation topics, the way you spend the time, everything. If they don’t want to talk about their sibling, don’t make them. Take this time to remind them you love them unconditionally, you’re there for them, and you see and appreciate their special brand of awesome.
Note: it’s best not to try to do this with money or gifts. What the non-struggling teen needs is your time and attention – nothing more and nothing less. That can’t be bought. It has to be given honestly and freely from your heart to theirs, with as little as possible getting in between the two of you.
You’ll notice a recurring theme in all of our posts: we stress open, honest, and direct communication about the challenging issues adolescents face.
We like to say communication first, communication last, communication always.
The sibling situation we’re discussing here is no different. The hard fact is that if one sibling has a substance use, mental health, or behavioral disorder, that sibling is going to monopolize the family focus for a time. The time may be short or long. It all depends on how things play out. There’s no way of knowing the outcome beforehand. As a parent, however, what you can know is that helping family is your priority, and sometimes it’s going to be all-hands-on-deck for the kid in trouble. Inside of all that, what you can’t forget, as a parent, is the other sibling: don’t let them fall through the cracks. In the end, families are more likely to overcome mental health and addiction problems when they face them together, in an atmosphere of love, support, and understanding that includes everyone.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.