A perspective that is not normally focused on is how siblings handle someone in crisis within the family home and its effects on them. I chose to do an informal Q & A with my oldest daughter (BJ) who had to deal with a sibling in crisis so that parents could get a view into their world and understand how it impacts their lives as well.
Q. Your sister was in a crisis. Did you understand what her crisis was when you were younger?
BJ. She had depression, anxiety, abandonment and identity issues along with suicidal tendencies and self-harm.
My response – It was a myriad of issues starting at a very young age that she didn’t know how to communicate in words for how she was feeling. She dealt with all of the above along with body issues, wanting to run away, rejection, etc…
Q. How did it affect you when you watched your sister’s crisis get worse?
BJ. It made me sad because I didn’t know how to help or what to do so I felt powerless. I also didn’t know how to handle it and worried that it would escalate and become even more serious.
My response – We thought by not sharing everything, especially things she didn’t understand about her sister, that we would be saving her from unnecessary worry and that it wasn’t her problem to fix. We didn’t realize that by keeping things from her that she would feel differently in the outcome and end up really upset and angry at her sister and at us. Her older sister was also fearful because she was afraid that her little sister would truly hurt herself and that she being the oldest should protect her more.
Q. How did we handle your sister’s crisis?
BJ. At first you gave her whatever she wanted. I think you were often ignoring it hoping it would go away or that she would grow out of it or you were in denial that she even had a problem. You did take her to counseling. After that you tried to keep her involved in stuff so she wouldn’t focus on it so much. You kept the doors of communication open with her more often too. You both punished her at times when acting out – wasn’t sure if it helped or made it worse but it was often used as a distraction sometimes.
My response – We were in denial for sure. We were hoping the issues would go away. For myself, I did ignore a lot of things mainly because I was going through a severe depression for several years. Her issues didn’t just show up one night. It was through time from one issue to another, one escalating over another and some hiding in dormant. It was always changing and sometimes it would seem to be better and other times from bad to worse in one day. We were overwhelmed, embarrassed, ashamed, helpless, because after all, we were supposed to know things as parents. Instead, we were lost, hopeless, in despair and grasping at anything to help. We eventually found a counselor but it took a long time. And punishing a child/pre-teen when they are hurting inside and acting out was not the answer. In fact, it made the situation more unbearable. But we didn’t understand this until later on.
Q. What efforts did we make to help your sister out of crisis?
BJ. Counseling for the family and a lot of praying. You didn’t in the beginning explain a lot of things as to what was going on and maybe I would have understood more if I was somehow involved in the process. But I don’t think I really knew how to help at the same time.
My Response – Once we got some type of direction it felt like a weight was lifted off. We were for a long time alone in this journey of uncertainty and then we finally had support. It took forever to get a counselor and when we did, she refused to talk or talk with a board and chalk. She was defiant because she felt like she was losing control of her life and that we were mean parents to her. She was scared. We honestly didn’t know the core issues going on and so obviously at the same time didn’t know how to explain it to her older sister.
Q. Did you ever feel left out while your sister was in crisis?
BJ. Yes. You spent more time with her when I needed you. I kind of knew in the back of my mind that she would need extra help, mainly because she was of course in crisis, but I was also hurt. I felt like she got all of the attention and I had to do more things to get noticed. Sometimes I would use positive attention and sometimes negative. In the end, I just didn’t feel as important.
My Response – Absolutely right. We did, especially myself, give her more attention. I think at the moment we were focused more on making sure that she didn’t try to kill herself or try to run off. We were fearful all the time. We just didn’t know how to handle the situation and unfortunately, our oldest daughter felt left behind in many ways.
Q. Did we treat you differently while dealing with your sister in crisis?
BJ. Yes, I felt like you expected more of me, especially since I was older and that I had to set the example but I was just a kid too. So at times I felt neglected as if I wasn’t the important one and it often made me angry. I struggled that my sister was being treated differently than me.
My Response – We did ask too much of our older daughter. We expected that being older they would be more understanding. We never even entertained the thought that we treated our daughters differently until they tell you. We get this notion that all are equally important and loved, but when a child is in crisis, the one who is not in crisis does not gain that same attention. Therefore, they feel rejected and think they need to be in crisis in order to get the focus back on them.
Q. What choices could have been made to help you feel like you were important and loved too?
BJ. Spending more time with me like once a week. Go to a movie. Help me be more informed. I felt she was more cared about than me all because she was going through her issues that I didn’t understand. I needed to be validated and given affirmation that I was still loved and valuable.
My Response – You must as parents make sure that siblings get the same focus on their lives as the one in crisis. By giving them praise for their understanding, their help, etc… you are letting them know that you are proud of them despite the very serious circumstances. Sometimes they also need to be reaffirmed that their sibling’s crisis is not their fault or that at times, attention will not be on them, but on the sibling that is hurting. Let them know that as parents, getting support from others can lessen the strain and stress that is involved with caring for a child in crisis. What is more important is that the siblings do not blame the one in crisis. For many reasons, the one in crisis is deeply hurting and doesn’t know how to cope in their situation. Siblings need to understand this so that resentment doesn’t build a wall between each other.
Q. What are some things you would want other parents to know about being a sibling to a teen in crisis?
BJ. Make sure you treat the other sibling the same and let them know what is going on. Help them to understand as much as you can so that they won’t get angry or upset. The door should always be open for communication to keep a good balance. Don’t always let the one in crisis do what they want because they use it for leverage to enable their issues. As parents, you should talk to your other children about it and get their opinions, find out how they are feeling and if you need to, take them to counseling too so that they have a mediator to talk to if they are afraid to talk to their parents.
My Response – In order for there to be healing, the whole family should be a part of the counseling and if need be, separate counseling. I did counseling for my depression until I was completely free of it a year later. That was freeing not just to me, but it also changed the dynamics within our home and helped us talk more openly of the issues we were all facing. In the end, our oldest daughter now understands more deeply of the pain her sister was going through and she holds no anger towards her. If anything, she has a better understanding of how crises within the family can affect everyone.