Children and adults often struggle with whether to inform other people about their mental health. Many people want to keep their mental health struggles a secret from other family members, even when those family members are being affected by these difficulties and may suspect a problem. They fear stigma, disconnection, and shame. Yet, many people will also tell you that openness, despite the vulnerability that comes with it, more often leads to positive connection and support. Brene Brown, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Houston has researched the power of vulnerability and the value of connection towards combating shame. The willingness and courage to acknowledge our pain helps increase shame resilience, which can help your child develop greater flexibility and hopefulness.
What about my child’s privacy?
It is important to respect our child’s right to privacy if they do not want to share about their struggles with a sibling. However, we also need to be cautious that we are not reinforcing an internal belief that they should be ashamed of their anxiety, depression, or other mental illness. Your child may feel embarrassed about sharing their emotional difficulties with siblings, but you can also empower them to help decide what to share and how to share it. Help them recognize that sharing can allow them to receive support and understanding, and this may lessen perceived antagonism from siblings. Parents should recognize that their other children may already experience their siblings’ mental health struggles in day-to-day interactions. This passive awareness may lead to unanswered questions, inaccurate assumptions, or misplaced blame. A child may feel that greater time and attention is being devoted to a sibling for an unknown reason, which can lead to resentment or negativity towards their brother or sister that is struggling, or towards parents that are less available. Correcting these things may require openness about a sibling’s mental health concerns, but it also provides an opportunity for compassion, connection between siblings, and recognition of strength rather than a focus on problems.
How do we talk to siblings about mental health struggles?
Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses can be confusing and difficult to understand, so go into these conversations with the goal of opening a dialogue and providing a space for questions to be addressed, worries to be shared, and feelings to be validated. A child may already be concerned about their siblings’ behavior, anxiety, withdrawal, or angry outbursts, and parents should strive to provide support, appropriate information, and reassurance that help is being provided and things will get better. Parents should be ready to offer answers to questions that a child may have about a sibling’s mental health concerns. It is OK for parents to acknowledge they may not have all the answers.
How do we approach the conversation with siblings?
Consider your child’s age and temperament when approaching these conversations. A young child will need simple concrete examples and language that is not confusing. For example, the word “sick” may be misleading as they already have an understanding of what being sick means, how often we get sick, and how to get better from being sick. Instead, talk about worries that are too big to handle by yourself, so you find a doctor that helps with big feelings. Siblings may also need their own support in coping with the effects of mental illness, such as ways to talk about anxiety or respond to a brother or sister’s panic. There may also be times when they are scared for a brother or sister’s physical safety. Having a better understanding of the issues taking place, and even getting professional support themselves, can help a sibling manage their own emotions and provide effective, age-appropriate support.
If this is a topic you have been struggling to address or in which you need support , don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional that can help consider your family’s needs and discuss how to address mental health appropriately. Parents also need to ensure they are caring for themselves as they support their children. If you’ve ever ridden on a plane, you’ve heard that you should always put your oxygen mask on first before helping someone else, and this analogy stands true for mental health as well. We need to properly care for ourselves in order to care for a child or sibling. If you, or a child, need help in any of these areas, it’s not too late to get started.