Supporting Siblings in a Chaotic Space
Photo by Annie Spratt, Unsplash
“I think my other kids have PTSD as a result of how their sister behaves. I can’t imagine how they couldn’t…they’ve lived in a war zone, and I have no idea how to help them.”
“I'm worried about my other kids. They don’t get the best of me because their brother demands all my time and energy. I know they feel like they’re always an afterthought. I feel terrible about it, but I also don’t see any way out of it.”
“My son told me the other day that he hates his sister. It wasn’t even when he was frustrated or angry, it was almost in passing, which made it even more heartbreaking to hear… like it wasn’t strong emotions that made him say it— it was how he really feels about her.”
“My daughter was crying in her room and I didn’t even realize until really late that night. I’m so focused on her brother’s emotional state minute-to-minute, and didn’t even notice this with her. It made me feel awful…How could I have missed that? I’m failing as a mom with both of them.”
If you’re a parent with multiple children, how many times have you said or thought similar things about your other kids, the siblings to your child who has challenging behaviors?
If you have, you’re not alone.
Many of the parents I work with one-to-one share their own symptoms of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) resulting from desperately trying to parent a child prone to rages and explosive behaviors that seem to emerge without warning. They sometimes describe feeling unsafe in their own home. They describe being on-edge, remaining hyper-vigilant as they try to anticipate their child’s mood each passing moment. There is a chronic mental and physical fatigue that sets in from years of trying to figure out how to help their child, while still finding or cultivating some sense of calm in their home.
Slowly, over time, they begin to see the very real impact that their child struggling with challenging behaviors has had on their entire family unit— on their marriage or partnership and on other children in the home. There is often an incredible sadness about this, and an accompanying sense of helplessness as to what can be done to protect the siblings in the family from this reality, or to create a space for the siblings that is free of chaos, yelling, breaking of things; where they could, perhaps, find respite and heal.
It compounds their stress, their feelings of failure, their worry about the future of all their kids.
While there are rarely easy answers that will resolve all the issues that can emerge from this complicated dynamic, there are ways that parents of children with challenging behaviors can minimize the impact of this child’s behavior on siblings who are witness to them.
The lens matters, because siblings are listening
How we support the siblings in our family begins with the lens through which we view our child who has the challenging behaviors. When we view our struggling child through a neurobehavioral lens, we recognize that due to their brain-based differences, they have challenging behavioral symptoms. We understand that if they could do well, they would— and because they are struggling, there must be something in their environment causing them distress. We understand that when we can connect the behavior to brain function, a new set of possibilities for accommodations emerges that can potentially help our child settle.
Why this matters: What we say and communicate through our actions about our child with challenging behaviors trickles down to the siblings, whether we recognize it or not. If we parent from this neurobehavioral lens, the way we support our struggling children WILL look different. That lens is not an excuse for inappropriate, abusive behavior, but it does change the way we react to and address it. It recognizes that there is an illness or disability, and leads us down a path of supporting with empathy vs punishing, shaming, and ostracizing.
The siblings in our family are watching us, observing how we react to our child with challenging behaviors, listening to how we describe them to others. If we use language that puts the situation into the neurobehavioral context, it will help the siblings in our family understand the brain-behavior connection, and will help them have more empathy for their brother or sister who is struggling. If they see us always coming from a place of trying to exert our power and control, raising our voices and punishing, throwing our hands up in the air always exasperated, this will be how they learn to respond as well.
Similarly, we need to consistently work to deepen our understanding of the neurobehavioral parenting model and how our child’s behaviors fit into this framework, so that we can articulate this perspective to our other children. Kids can begin to understand that “brains work differently” at a very young age, and can grow into a more sophisticated understanding as they get older, so there is no age that’s too early to begin talking with siblings about this in relation to a brother or sister who struggles. This understanding of their brother or sister develops over time, meaning this is a conversation we also need to have regularly and consistently over time. It’s completely normal for children to struggle with the ways in which it appears their brother or sister is “getting away with things,” or that a “double standard” is forming as you implement accommodations in your home. Validating this very normal feeling, while also explaining that fair does not necessarily mean equal, is essential, and much easier if you as the parent are confident in your understanding of the model.
Recognizing the seriousness of the impact any trauma the siblings in your family have experienced is critical, so that any interventions can match the intensity of siblings’ needs. The lasting impact of trauma doesn’t go away on its own. It needs to be worked through, or will come out at some point in maladaptive ways. The support your sibling children need will look different depending on their needs, but being proactive in seeking out this support is always ideal.
Allowing the full range of feelings
Many of the siblings in these family units do not want to burden their parents with additional concerns or worries, so avoid speaking up about how hard it is for them in the home. This is why we, the parents, need to bring this conversation to the surface even when it is difficult to do. Making a point to tell a child that it’s okay to have feelings of resentment and anger towards their brother or sister allows them to feel what they might be trying to avoid. Some of those feelings might be: Guilt about experiencing genuine hatred for a sibling over something that sibling can’t control; guilt that they are healthy when their sibling is not; shame or embarrassment about the way their sibling behaves; feeling sympathy for a sibling and also resentment towards them, knowing they have nothing to do with this illness but also feeling guilty, as though they should be able to do something about it; feeling fiercely protective of their sibling while at the same time highly ashamed of them.
Just like all of us, when children are given permission to feel the whole range of emotions that being the “neurotypical” sibling can contain, they can then begin to work through those emotions in healthy ways.
When we are able to validate their experiences, they then know their experience is important, and what they have to say means something. They feel more heard, and less alone. They feel like someone else gets it. Statements that they’ve been holding inside for so long— “Sometimes, I wish I didn’t even have a brother. Life would be so much easier…” — lose their power when we, as their parents, can say, “I understand why you would feel that way and it’s okay to feel that way.” Showing up in this way for our sibling children requires us to do our own hard work, and to process our own feelings related to our parenting experience.
Yet another reason why we, as parents, need to be highly committed to our self-care practices.
Acknowledging that the siblings in our family may feel unsafe at times in their own home can also bring relief, in that they don’t have to manage this exceptionally emotional experience on their own. Talking with them about creating a plan to follow when their brother or sister is in the middle of a rage is essential, so they don’t have to figure this out on their own in the most stressful moments. Asking them where they feel they can retreat, feel safe, and find calm helps attend to them and their experience, and also lets them know you’re thinking of their well-being in the moments when it can seem that their brother or sister is all-consuming of attention and focus.
Resisting the urge to "Parentify"
As the parent in this unique dynamic, it’s also important to pay attention to the ways in which we might have unintentionally parentified the siblings in our home. It is easy to fall into a pattern of asking siblings help in ways that really are the role of the parent. This can leave them feeling as though they are not allowed to be the child. That they must be more responsible, more mature, and more reliable than their peers.
Carving out intentional one-on-one time for the siblings in the family is essential for them, for us, and for our connection and relationship with them. Every parent I work with has the desire to create this space, but are often so overwhelmed with the needs of their child with challenging behaviors that it’s hard to imagine how to make it happen. This is where I remind them that there does not need to be some elaborate agenda. It can be simple and spontaneous; all it requires is for them to be present. Turning off phones and tuning into a sibling while on a walk, playing a card game, or during a drive to the store are all wonderful and meaningful starting points for making this focused time a reality.
Finally, the best thing we can do to support the siblings in our family unit is to take care of our own emotional, physical and spiritual well-being. The care we give ourselves needs to match the intensity of our very unique parenting experience. When we feel grounded in our own experience, as difficult as it may be at times, we can then support the others around us who are also impacted by that experience, but who may not yet have the skills or perspective to manage. When our nervous system is healthy, we are able to remain emotionally regulated when our children are not, and to be a source of calm for them. If self-care is low on your priority list because you find yourself caring for the needs of others first, I want to encourage you to see that always putting your child’s needs first is detrimental to them and you in the long run. You will, at some point, not be able to show up for them in the way you so desperately want, because of illness, emotional depletion, fatigue, burnout, and/or hopelessness.
Please make it a priority for you and for them. Your life literally depends on it.
We all need to find “our people”—the ones who can support us in our journey, which translates into us being able to support all our children on their journeys. If you’re looking for that community of parents who truly understand all aspects of your parenting experience, please check out The Resilience Room, a close-knit community of parents who have children with challenging behaviors.
Eileen Devine, LCSW works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.