Your other children already know something is terribly wrong, and they deserve to hear the truth from you.
Most are old enough. They see other children in school and discover other families are nicer, so they don’t talk about their own. They are afraid to bring friends over to visit because of how their troubled brother or sister behaves–pestering them, upsetting them–then those friends talk about it with fellow students and their own parents. Word gets out about your family and people form opinions, especially teachers.
Siblings also feel unsafe and insecure. They never know what’s going to happen! Tell them the truth and trust them to understand and appreciate your candor.
- You cannot cure a mental disorder for a sibling.
- No one is to blame for the illness.
- No one knows the future; your sibling’s symptoms may get worse or they may improve, regardless of your efforts.
- If you feel extreme resentment, you are giving too much.
- It is as hard for the ill sibling to accept the disorder as it is for you.
- Separate the person from the disorder.
- It is not OK for you to be neglected. You have emotional needs and wants, too. The needs of the ill person do not always come first.
- The illness of a family member is nothing to be ashamed of.
- You may have to revise your expectations of your sibling. They may never be ‘normal’ but it’s OK.
- Acknowledge the remarkable courage your sibling may show when dealing with a mental disorder. Have compassion, they suffer and face a difficult life.
- Strange or upsetting behavior is a symptom of the disorder. Don’t take it personally.
- Don’t be afraid to ask your sibling if he or she is thinking about hurting him or herself. Suicide is real.
- If you can’t care for yourself, you can’t care for another.
- It is important to have boundaries and to set clear limits. You should expect your sibling to show respect for others.
- It is natural to experience many and confusing emotions such as grief, guilt, fear, anger, sadness, hurt, confusion, and more. You, not the ill person, are responsible for your own feelings.
- You are not alone. Sharing your thoughts and feelings in a support group has been helpful and enlightening for many.
- Eventually you may see the silver lining in the storm clouds: your own increased awareness, sensitivity, receptivity, compassion, and maturity. You may become less judgmental and self-centered, a better person.
Excerpted from “Coping Tips for Siblings and Adult Children of Persons with Mental Illness,” from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 2001, www.nami.org.