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National Siblings Day 2021: What About the Sibling Without Mental Illness?


Every year on April 10th in the U.S., we celebrate National Siblings Day (NSD). Founded in 1999 by Claudia Evart in the spirit of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Claudia created the Siblings Day Foundation in order to promote NSD and give everyone with siblings the chance to honor the special place siblings have in their lives.

National Siblings Day was formally recognized by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and again by President Bush in 2008. In 2016, President Obama drafted this special statement in honor of NSD:

“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.”

That sums it up perfectly: sisters, brothers, and friends are a blessing.

We’ve recognized NSD for the past three years.

Our first NSD article discussed how to handle sibling rivalry when one sibling is in treatment for a mental health, behavioral, or substance use disorder, and another isn’t.

To read that article, click here.

Last year, our NSD article was – as you may guess – influenced by the coronavirus pandemic. We stressed the concept that despite the fact that siblings might be the most annoying humans ever in the entire history of humans, we need to keep perspective and be grateful for the love and joy they bring our lives.

To read that article, click here.

This year, we’re going in a different direction: we’re going to talk about how to support the sibling in the family that does not have a mental, behavioral, or substance use disorder. We encourage parents to recognize them this year.

And if you’re a teen with a sibling in treatment, then this year, we honor you.

How Mental Health and Behavioral Issues Affect Siblings

Parents feel the issues that affect their children deep in their bones.

It’s not an exaggeration to say they feel them in their hearts, too – and we’re not talking about the organ that keeps the blood flowing. They feel the troubles deep in every aspect of their being: physical, psychological, and emotional.

Here’s something to know:

So do the siblings.

They may not articulate the feelings. Often, that’s because they may not understand the feelings. They may not act out in a negative or disruptive way. They may amaze parents with their resilience, understanding, and capacity to offer support and love to their sibling who lives with a mental health, behavioral, or substance use disorder.

But here’s something to consider: child and adolescent development experts say that the amazing resilience, support, and calm they show may also be a coping mechanism. The love and support are likely genuine: there’s no doubt about that. As is the resilience, understanding, and capacity to accept and adapt in the face of difficulty. In some cases, though, these qualities – which are expected in adults, and not so much in teens or younger children – may mask the emotions they feel but do not understand.

Here are three things those same experts say siblings need in order to process the situation in healthy and productive ways:

  • Information. Siblings need age-appropriate facts about mental health disorders. This helps the process of naming and taming that allows them to understand what’s happening in the family.
  • Coping skills. Siblings need their own toolkit of tactics to deal with the stress and anxiety they feel related to their sibling’s illness.
  • Support. Siblings need support from family, friends, and in many cases, mental health professionals. Intentional support will help them handle the situation – and any related emotions – in a healthy and productive manner.

That’s what the experts say – and we should listen to them.

However, we found an amazing resource on this topic we want to share with you now.

Sibling Support: What They Need, According to Them

While researching this article, we found a resource that any family in the situation we discuss in this article should know about. It’s called The Sibling Support Project (SSP). The SSP is a non-profit organization “dedicated to the life-long and ever-changing concerns of millions of brothers and sisters of people with special health, development, and mental health concerns.”

It’s an amazing resource, but the amazing resource on this topic we refer to above is not the website itself. Rather, it’s a publication we found on this page called “What Siblings Would Like Parents and Service Providers to Know.”

It’s the result of an ongoing, interactive discussion group. It contains the information siblings of people with atypical mental health needs indicate they would have liked to have had from the very beginning. It’s a 20-item list of things they needed from their parents, which they want to share with the world.

It also contains two pieces of information they want others to know about their relationship with their siblings. We’ll start with those – verbatim – then offer a condensed version of their 20-point list. Here are the first two points:

Point One:

“These brothers and sisters will be in the lives of family members with special needs longer than anyone. Brothers and sisters will be there after parents are gone and special education services are a distant memory. If they are provided with support and information, they can help their sibs live dignified lives from childhood to their senior years.”

Point Two:

“Throughout their lives, brothers and sisters share many of the concerns that parents of children with special needs experience, including isolation, a need for information, guilt, concerns about the future, and caregiving demands. Brothers and sisters also face issues that are uniquely theirs including resentment, peer issues, embarrassment, and pressure to achieve.”

Although these points contain the language “special needs,” we encourage you to be flexible in your thinking and understand how these points transfer directly to the siblings of people with mental health, behavioral, or substance use disorders.

Now, we’ll offer our condensed, 10-item version of the 20-item list we link to above.

Ten Things Siblings Want Parents and Service Providers to Know (And Do)

1. We have the right to our own life.

Siblings want to remind parents and providers that though their siblings may need more support than them, their needs must be remembered. The phrase nothing about us without us applies here.

2. We want you to acknowledge our concerns.

Siblings want parents and providers to remember they have very real concerns about their siblings with mental health issues, and those concerns should be heard and addressed.

3. We want you to manage your expectations of us – and help us do the same.

Siblings of people with mental health issues often create unrealistic standards for themselves. They work to be the easy child or the child you don’t have to worry about. They want parents to see them for who they are, and help them be themselves in a healthy, reasonable, and sustainable manner.

4. We are not perfect.

Siblings of people with mental health issues deserve the right to get mad, make mistakes, misbehave, and get in arguments with their siblings. They know their brothers or sisters need latitude, sometimes, but they cannot walk on eggshells around them all the time.

5. Set high standards for my sibling.

Siblings want their siblings with mental health, emotional, or behavioral disorders to be held accountable for their behavior. They want parents to have similar expectations for all the kids in the family – when possible – around things like household chores and personal responsibilities.

6. We have the right to a safe environment.

Siblings of people with disruptive or volatile mental health issues sometimes take on responsibilities for themselves that are beyond what’s reasonable for their age or maturity level. They want parents to know this, and want to remind parents that their own personal safety and wellness is as important as that of their sibling.

7. We need a peer support system.

Much like parents of teens in rehab or treatment, siblings can benefit from meeting and talking to other kids or teens who have siblings with mental health issues. Peer support systems like SibTeen offer valuable fellowship with teens facing similar circumstances.

8. We worry about the future.

Siblings of people with mental health challenges worry about their future – not just their brother’s or sister’s futures. They want to know they have their parents’ blessing to pursue their own lives, their own goals, and their own dreams.

9. Please don’t expect just girls to be the caregivers.

What often happens in families is that caregiving duties fall to the females. Siblings want parents to remember that everyone is responsible for helping the person with mental health or behavioral challenges – not just the girls.

10. Spend one-on-one time with us.

When a child or teen receives a diagnosis for a mental health disorder, parents often focus on them. Siblings want their parents to remember to spend one-on-one time with them, too. Spend time is the operative phrase, here. Actions speak louder than words: siblings want parents to make the time to go shopping, go to a ballgame, grab a burger – whatever it is, they want to remind parents that they need that time with them.

Parents reading this list probably already know all these things. It’s important to remember them, though. It’s easy to lose focus on the siblings with fewer challenges while taking care of the sibling(s) with more challenges. We encourage you to read through the list, compare these needs to what’s going on in your family, and make adjustments when necessary.

Mental Health Issues Affect the Whole Family

The reason most treatment programs for teens – whether those programs are for mental health, behavioral, or addiction issues – involve weekly family therapy is that when one family member has a mental health issue, it impacts everyone.

It impacts the teen siblings, too. Although they’re the ones most likely to say “I’m fine” when asked how they’re doing, in relation to their sibling’s challenges, it’s important to take that with a grain of salt. They may well be fine. With that said, parents should understand that if they feel their world has been turned upside-down by a mental health diagnosis in one of their children, then it’s likely their other kids feel the same way.

This year, for National Siblings Day, our message is this: remember the other sibling. Remember them and include them. You’ll be surprised by how much they still need you, and you’ll also be surprised how much they can help, when they feel seen, heard, and valued by everyone in the family.

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