Monday, August 1, 2011

Helping siblings of kids in a mental health crisis

A lot of the crisis management that goes on when Big Guy is doing poorly has to do with keeping the rest of the family safe and calm. A good therapist will occasionally inquire how you, the parent, are holding up. But no one ever talks about how to help siblings cope.And it's a huge issue.

I know most of you don't have this situation. But there are bits and pieces in this that might help, I think, with everyday life.

1. Minimize the amount of trauma kids witness. Violent meltdowns aren't good for other kids to see, especially when they involve danger. The other kids get understandably anxious, which means they want your attention, which divides your focus, which is very frustrating. Not to mention kids can learn behaviors you don't want them imitating. And they could get hurt. After a lot of near-misses, we sat the other kids down at a calm moment, and explained to them that when Big Guy was falling apart we needed to be able to devote 100% of our attention to helping him -- and we couldn't do that if we weren't sure they were safe. After that, whenever he blew we'd turn to the others and say, firmly but calmly, "I need you to go in the other room until he is safe again." Once they learned to remove themselves, life became less complicated.

2. Make time to help your other kids process their feelings. This seems impossible, especially when you are running on empty. But there has to be a time when your 'normal' kids get 100% of your attention, too. This is closely connected to the next item...

3. Know what makes your kids feel loved. Another seeming no-brainer, but when you're stressed your brain isn't clear. I often tell moms who are expecting a second child to write down in advance all the things that make their first child's eyes glow with joy. Because then when you're exhausted you look at the list and laugh at your brain-deadness, saying, Oh my, yes! A bubble bath! I can give her a bubble bath! It's a simple, do-able thing that you were too stressed to think of, and it gets you a lot of mileage because it shows your child that of course you know the specific things she enjoys. (More about this here.) If you have a child who moves in and out of crisis, it helps to have a list for each of your other children. Eventually you'll incorporate it into your long-term memory. Most of the time.

4. Reinforce a we'll-get-through-it attitude. Kids need to know that real life isn't just a matter of making uncomfortable stuff go away. We work through problems -- and it's work, and it doesn't always happen at the pace we want, and we don't always get the results we want. It's not fun. But one thing about families is that we work through things together. Parents have to take the lead here. If your head is screaming I can't take this! I can't do this! you have to breathe deeply and talk yourself down. Have to. Little people are counting on you.

5. Keep life as normal as possible. Do all the regular things you can, and supplement with fun stuff. It's totally okay to call people and say, "One of my kids is in the hospital. Can I mooch a playdate sometime in the next few days?" Keep the chores moving, because simple things like laundry and cleaning the bathroom give us a tiny bit of control over our lives. And try to have dinner at a regular time, even if it's not the regular time.

6. Tell your kids how you feel about the fact they have to go through this. It stinks. If you could snap your fingers and make their sibling normal again, you would. If you could make things like they used to be, you'd do it in a heartbeat. But if we don't always get to choose the situations we have to live through, we do get to choose what kind of people we want to be. And we, in our family, want to be people who grow stronger and braver and more faithful. The situation stinks, but we're going to do what we need to do to make it as good as it can be.

7. Remind kids of other people they know who have siblings with problems. Undoubtedly you will know a family with a child with severe health issues, or developmental problems, or accident-related injuries. Just knowing that other families are hurting and adapting and coping can help.

8. Breathe, hold it together as best you can, and cry when you're alone. I am convinced that one of the reasons God made the day 24 hours long is so that mothers have 2am for sobbing. Make sure you take a couple of close friends into your confidence. You'll be surprised how many people have siblings of their own who had major problems.

Or, if you don't know anyone to talk to, write to me at . It's hard to go through this stuff alone.


  1. Dearest Julia,

    There have been times, since we lost our son, Shawn, that I wondered
    WHAT it would have been like if I hadn't had to go through this horrendous ANGUISH. Removing this anguish, though, would have been removing this beloved son also. He wasn't "easy" and I always felt that I should be able to help him MORE-- in ways of dealing with those low blood sugars, talking him into a pump and a doctor's appointment for his sleep apnea. He wouldn't HAVE some of this...STILL I PERSIST with some of these thoughts. I come to your blog, even though it is mostly too late--although it's NOT too late to change my thoughts and behavior patterns. I come, to LEARN FROM YOU, my friend. Thank you.

    Shirley, with big hugs.....

  2. Sharing this with my friend Emily on FB. She has created a Sub Program at our ARC. Your vulnerability and authenticity are amazing. God bless you and your family.

  3. "I am convinced that one of the reasons God made the day 24 hours long is so that mothers have 2am for sobbing." As a mom I have spent many 2 a.m.'s sobbing and praying for our children who chose unwisely. This article could speak to many people who are enduring all sorts of trials that they have no control over. I am sorry for your past and present pain and I treasure your wisdom and transparency. May God continue to wrap His loving arms around your family. Sisters in Christ praying together.