Mental illness affects the entire family, including the siblings--a factor that is often overlooked. Children who have a brother or sister with a mental illness face many challenges, but they also gain valuable insight and can learn compassion from the experience.
A child with a brother or sister who suffers from a mental illness faces challenges ranging from a lack of attention in the family to social and emotional maladjustment.
The needs and troubles of children who have mentally ill siblings often go overlooked. It can seem that all of the family’s energy - emotional and physical - goes towards supporting the child with the illness, and almost none is left over for her brothers and sisters. When problems do appear, they can be overlooked because they seem incredibly minor in comparison. When problems get noticed, parents and even mature siblings can be too overwhelmed with the needs of the mentally ill child to do anything about them.
Kids who have a brother or sister suffering from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or even cognitive or physical disabilities may feel resentment because of all of the time, energy and attention taken by their sibling. In the case of a bipolar child, not only does the bipolar sibling usually get more of the parents’ attention, but chances are he gets away with more as well. He may not be punished for behaviors that would have his brothers and sisters grounded for weeks. That doesn’t feel fair to a child. It is hard for children to comprehend why they are held to a different set of rules than their brothers and sisters, and over time, the special treatment can fuel feelings of anger and resentment against the parents and the sibling.
Another issue that fuels resentment is when the sibling of a bipolar child has to assume a caregiver or other supporting role. An older brother may have to help watch over his sibling or be specifically asked to look out for him or her at school or at play. This "loss of childhood" can cause long-term feelings of resentment that can carry into adulthood.
Children may be embarrassed about their bipolar sibling. Every child faces challenges in fitting in at school and in the community. Add a mentally ill sibling to the mix, and fitting in with the other kids can seem outright impossible, especially to a young mind.
Children with a mentally ill brother or sister may feel that they are different from other kids at school. The may believe that their home life is much different than the home lives of other children. A household that includes a mentally ill person often focuses around the irregular behaviors of the mental illness. For example, a child who has a bipolar sibling may be subject to verbal or physical abuse from their brother or sister. Those children may feel that their unique home lives separate them from what they view as the "normal" lives of their fellow students. They may feel that they don’t know how to function or don’t fit in with "normal" kids.
Children may fear that they will get a mental illness like their siblings. The children may not share their fears with their parents, leaving the fear to grow inside them. If children do not share their fears with their parents, the fear may feel overwhelming and interfere with their behavior at home and school.
All of the feelings that children may have about their bipolar siblings can cause feelings of guilt. These children still love their siblings, even if they cause them a lot of turmoil. It is never easy feeling unpleasant thoughts about the ones you love. Children are ill equipped to handle the conflicting feelings of love, resentment and embarrassment.
A child needs to form a secure relationship with at least one caregiver, according to Richard Bowlby in his book Fifty Years of Attachment Theory: Recollections of Donald Winnicott and John Bowlby (Bowlby, 2004). If a child does not form this secure relationship, she may become socially and emotionally maladjusted. Children with mentally ill siblings may not have the opportunity to form a secure relationship with a parent and may not form the emotional bonds that most children form with their parents. The child may not learn how to form healthy relationships with others and may have difficulty controlling her emotions.
Having a brother or sister with a mental illness is not all doom and gloom. There are many positives. Ask anyone who has been through it, and they will tell you they gained tremendously from their experiences.
A mentally ill child can be really fun for a brother or sister to be around at times. For example, a bipolar child is often adventurous and outgoing. When not depressed, the bipolar child may play fun games with his or her sibling or bring the sibling to fun outings with friends.
Kids who have brothers or sisters with a mental illness often learn to be compassionate at very young ages. They see what the mental illness does to the person they love. As they get older, they develop and understanding of how mental illness affects people. Because they can relate to others who experience mental illness in their lives, some of these children, when they grow up, go into the field of psychiatry or volunteer their time to help people affected by mental illness.
Children who have siblings with a mental illness can greatly benefit from one-on-one counseling, family counseling, and support groups, to help them understand their emotions, their family dynamics, and to give them tools to express themselves and deal with their feelings. Support groups designed specifically for children with mentally ill siblings can be especially helpful, because they teach kids that they are not alone in what they are experiencing and that there are other people who can relate to what they are feeling.