Siblings Must Compete With Mentally Ill Child for Attention

November 29, 2011 Angela McClanahan

I'm not sure when it happened, but The Toddler has determined "Mom Time" is a good thing. Good enough to be fought for. Begged, borrowed, and stolen for. Bob, not to be outdone in this attention-seeking contest, has upped the ante (however unintentionally). The end result? One Mom, looking like taffy, stretched and pulled, pulled and stretched, ready to snap and feeling pretty similar.

I know The Toddler has likely started to feel the way a lot of kids with mentally ill siblings feel--like they are

  • short-changed on their parents' attention for the benefit of the "problem" sibling;
  • neglected because they don't have the same issues;
  • alone, even within their own family unit.

I'm not saying The Toddler, at the ripe old age of three, is any of these; his age still requires us to spend substantial time attending to his various needs. It does, however, appear he has learned Big Brother is a major contender in the race to be #1 on Mom's roster.

For now, I believe it's little more than a game to him--mimic Bob's attention-seeking behavior and be rewarded with (very annoyed and frustrated) Mommy's attention. But it's easy to see how this could become a serious problem in our household over the coming years. An NYU Child Study Center article suggests strategies for parents to keep the rivalry to a minimum, including:

  • give each child regular time with each parent alone and together (easy for us, as The Toddler gets home an hour before Bob each afternoon and Bob spends alternate weekends and Wednesday evenings with his biological father);
  • plan family activities that don't have to include the special needs child (which sounds questionable to me, personally--how is it a "family" activity in that case?--but is also understandable if the special needs child is the only family member opposed to an activity);
  • encourage children to pursue their own interests and give each of them space for their own belongings (I am adamant about my boys having their own rooms for multiple reasons);
  • remember "special needs" doesn't equal "special treatment;" i.e., all children are subject to the family rules, expected to perform chores to their own ability, etc. (although I've been lax in this department in the past, steps are being taken to "tighten up the ship").

I know The Toddler's life with Bob will have a completely different perspective from my own, but I don't expect it to be all bad. He loves his brother, and the feeling is mutual. My goal is to make sure that doesn't change simply because of Bob's diagnosis.

APA Reference
McClanahan, A. (2011, November 29). Siblings Must Compete With Mentally Ill Child for Attention, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 14 from

Author: Angela McClanahan

April, 27 2012 at 2:53 pm

Adult? I'm seventeen. I'm starting to see thanks to my classmates just how little I know about the rules of social interaction and the ins and outs of starting and maintaining relationships. Do I blame my brother? Not at all; I know it's not his fault, and he certainly doesn't need any more complications in his life. Do I blame my parents? To a certain extent, yes. The way I see it, they agreed to provide for all my needs when they decided to keep me. Since they haven't, I feel betrayed, and that feeling is going to stay until I have enough time away from them to figure myself out and fix myself.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Angela McClanahan
April, 27 2012 at 3:03 pm

Perhaps your opinion will change once (if) you have children of your own. A real eye-opener, that.
I don't know you, or your parents, or anything about your situation. But the tone of your initial comment implies a complete lack of understanding of just how much blood, sweat and tears (literally) are involved in raising children. They don't mention that stuff in Child Development class.
My apologies for assuming your age. And I wish you the best of luck in your future.

April, 25 2012 at 10:21 am

Allow me to give you some advice from a younger sister of someone with bipolar and Asperger's. You can't fulfill both your children's needs on your own, or even with your kids' fathers. The regular professional help mentally ill kids get isn't going to help with what I'm talking about. My parents chose to tend to my brother's needs first, and as such never had the time or energy to help with mine. I hope you can understand how much I resented that, and still resent it. However, my only real objection to their approach is that they didn't admit their inability to meet my needs to themselves. I essentially raised myself, and I never gained any trust in them. I won't get into the problems I have now because of that, but I will say that most of them could have been fixed by my parents admitting defeat and finding me an additional or alternative emotional caretaker. I see it as comparable to giving up a child for adoption. It must be heartbreaking to give up your kid, more so if you see that as a sign that you've failed them, but the decision has to be made in the kid's best interest. Admittedly, yes, going to, say, Big Brother, Big Sister isn't giving up your child, but you are giving up a close, trusting relationship, and it is hard to admit your own failings. Still, I think parents of both mentally ill and "healthy" children need to step back from their emotions and think long and hard about what is really best for all of their kids. It would have made my life much better.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Angela McClanahan
April, 27 2012 at 4:40 am

I'm sorry you had such a bad experience as a child. I'm also sorry you find it necessary, as an adult, to continue your condemnation of your parents and older sibling.

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