Siblings of Children with Mental Illness

May 24, 2015 Christina Halli

Are the siblings of your child with mental illness suffering because of your family's situation? Find out to deal with the sister of a mentally ill son.

Raising siblings of children with mental illness is challenging. My husband and I have spent so much energy on my 17-year-old son Bob who lives with bipolar disorder and social anxiety, his younger sister, Hannah, is sometimes neglected. Hannah, the sibling of a child with mental illness, has witnessed multiple crises in our family. She has been the trigger or target of her brother's outbursts. It is no wonder she is struggling with mental health issues of her own.

I received a call from the school counselor a few weeks ago. She said Hannah was in her office because she was making threats of self-harm. Honestly, I thought the counselor had it all wrong. This was not Bob, my child with mental illness. This was his sibling, Hannah.

Hannah is always happy. Hannah is a natural athlete who rides horses and plays water polo. Hannah makes her bed, gets ready for school on her own, does her chores and likes homework.

Children with Mental Illness' Siblings Suffer

Are the siblings of your child with mental illness suffering because of your family's situation? Find out to deal with the sister of a mentally ill son.

The counselor suggested I take my daughter to the local psychiatric hospital, crisis center or to see her therapist as soon as possible. Hannah was not permitted to stay at school because the counselor believed she was a threat to herself.

I spoke with Hannah on the phone. Hannah said she could stay safe at school and would meet with her therapist that night. The counselor agreed to the plan and allowed Hannah to return to class. That night Hannah's therapist helped her make a safety contract.

Over the weekend, Hannah had a falling out with her best friend (BFF). Hannah showed me some lengthy texts she received that were loaded with profanity and condemnation only a 15 year-old girl could hurl. Hannah deleted her side of the conversation, but admitted she too had sent incriminating texts. The following days at school were horrific for my sweet daughter.

On Friday, Hannah got smacked in the face by an elbow at water polo practice. Monday, the school counselor told me Hannah was kept after school by the principal and nurse to investigate the injury. When they asked Hannah how she got her black eye, Hannah's story twisted into her brother hitting her with a ball.

Hannah's therapist straightened it out with the school. She said Hannah believed she was in trouble when she was called into the office. She felt scared and wasn't thinking clearly. She told the story about the ball because she was overwhelmed by her emotions.

A few days after the black eye, I stumbled upon some emails Hannah sent to another friend. In the exchange, it was obvious Hannah was self-harming. My stomach dropped. How could this be happening to my daughter? She does not have a mental illness. Her brother does.

Let's be clear about self-harm. Most who self-injure have underlying stress that drive them to self-harm. Self-injury can be a distraction and provide relief. However, it is an unhealthy coping skill and can become an addiction.

Impact on Siblings of Children with Mental Illness

During Hannah's next therapy appointment, she admitted she self-harmed whenever her emotions became overwhelming. Loneliness and fear of abandonment were her triggers. She burned her skin with an eraser. She scratched her torso with a stiff brush. She cut her hands and wrists with a razor and a pen cap.

I'd seen the marks, cuts and scars and asked her about them. She had reasonable explanations like the dog scratched her. I believed her because she is not Bob.

Siblings of children with mental illness suffer. They witness terrible situations in their families. They don't feel safe in their homes. They are treated differently than their siblings with mental illness by their parents. It is difficult for them to compute what is happening and are ill-equipped to cope with overpowering feelings. Some will not share their struggles outside the family, thinking they are protecting the family. Others are afraid to speak up because they don't want to add to their parents' burden. All of this affects them profoundly.

I don’t have the answers on how to raise siblings of children with mental illness. I can only share my experience with you. My eyes are now more focused on my dear daughter. I will parent her with the same vigor and tenacity I do her brother Bob so that she can find alternatives to self-harm and ultimately better tools to deal with her intense emotions.

You can find Christina on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

APA Reference
Halli, C. (2015, May 24). Siblings of Children with Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 15 from

Author: Christina Halli

Valerie Duke
July, 18 2018 at 9:17 pm

I wonder if anyone has gotten advice on how to handle a bipolar child (10 years old) who when asked to watch her 10 month old Baby brother does not and he ends up hurting himself while mom is I.e. taking a shower

August, 12 2018 at 8:20 pm

I don’t know how I missed this comment! My advice is don’t leave them alone. Typical 10 year olds can handle the responsibility, but it sounds like yours can’t. Can the baby sit in a play pen in the bathroom while you shower? Look into support services like personal care attendants, skills workers, and other in-home supports. Insurance covers some. Others sometimes have grant funding attached. Either way, in-home help puts some of the stress off you and may help out with safety issues. I hope your infant is okay!

August, 17 2016 at 5:26 pm

I don't like to vent because I don't want others to feel bad for me, it hurts me. I don't want anyone to feel the pain I feel.
Recently in the last argument with my older bi-polar sister is that she had told me " you want mom and dad to hate me so you can have them all for yourself" .... it broke my heart I have been crying about those words for three days. does she really believe that? my parents love her, I love her. why does she think that? I recently feel that I want to be invisible and the least bit in everyone's life as possible just so she can see that everyone loves her. She has made me feel unimportant my whole life.
There is much more to my long sappy story ... The grief and remorse I feel burdened on my heart everyday I wish upon not my worst enemy.

August, 17 2016 at 5:05 pm

I always wanted to believe that things would change; I never faced the truth until I turned 20. Recently having to deal with my bi-polar 23 year old sister is becoming the hardest thing in the world for me to cope with. Ever since I was a little girl I always felt a weird relationship with my sister, she was always so mean and not the type of mean where you can brush it off your shoulder but the kind where those cruel words and actions just don't leave your heart. My parents would always just tell me its because she was jealous. Growing up she always wanted me to feel less, she would always tell me I was the adopted ugly child that noone cared about, "i am so ugly and I don't look like anyone because I wasn't part of the family". Things that would make any young sibling cry. I was only 6 years old that she nailed into my head I was fat.. walking around the house singing "I'm not leaving until the fat lady sings". Within those same years she had pushed me down the stairs while holding toys (severely hurt). Metal pole purposely fallen on my head (to this day have scaring) .. while being so young I thought these things were done accidentally .. While in middle school I had the greatest hope that things would change.
She always acts towards me with so much hate. Its like she wants me to hate myself and then before I know it she is telling me how sorry she is and doesn't mean anything she does or says.

February, 24 2016 at 11:49 am

I read these posts and feel very sad for you all
It has taken me far too long to realise my daughter has been mentally ill for most of her life.
her brother is now a rigid young man who denies himself any pleasures,who never complains,but who is a wonderful son.His sister has had all the good and bad attention.
I pray for all of us as we struggle through

February, 23 2016 at 5:39 am

So glad I found your site. My 12 year old daughter was diagnosed at 7 with an ASD and mood disorder. We all suffered 5 years of extreme mental and physical abuse. 2 years ago she attended a RTC and then a therapeutic boarding school. She is stable and doing well. However the after affects have been catastrophic. When she left the home my eldest daughter began having panic attacks, she began cutting and scratching her body and throwing up her food. My youngest daughter won't go upstairs alone, won't shut a door when she's in a room and chews her fingers relentlessly. My husband and are love each other dearly but can't now seem to make it work. Both suffering mentally and physically we argue and bicker about how to deal with the kids. I just don't know how to begin healing my family.

July, 21 2015 at 4:10 am

Oh my God, I am sobbing reading this. Someone else dealing with this! My son is 19 and has schizoaffective disorder. Life with him is not easy and all my kids have suffered but esp his younger brother who is his brothers biggest target. He also says he doesn't feel safe at home. He now suffers from depression, anxiety and has attempted suicide in past. He also abuses pot. Sometimes I feel like I am choosing between my kids. Everyday is a struggle trying to help my two boys. God bless all parents who have to deal with this hell.

June, 24 2015 at 11:58 am

I'm the younger sibling, my older sister aged now 21 for as long as I can remember has had outbursts. She's taken a overdose, had a abortion, can flip at anything, lies constantly about things big and small. My parents use "she had mental health issues" as a excuse for everything. I myself self harmed, purged after meals and had very deep dark thoughts for a while I told my mum and I was dismissed. I told my mum I self harmed and no help was found. Myself I stopped, I now have a lovely boyfriend and my life has became better but I will never compete with my sister, I am the stright A grade student who does what she is told. All I can say is mental health issues can not and should not be used as a excuse for all short coming in a persons lives. Your other children will cry themselves to sleep and coppy learnt behaviour while they go under the radar. Please treat them equally.
From the younger siblings perspective.

June, 17 2015 at 9:07 am

I so appreciate your blog. The past 3 years - since my daughter's illness began - have been so difficult. My sons are so terribly affected and there have been times when their needs have barely been met due to trying to simply keep our daughter alive. This is not something that other people can understand unless they too, have had to live in this situation. I am truly grateful to read about other families real stories. Thank you.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Christina Halli
June, 18 2015 at 5:51 am

Thank you for your comment. I totally get where you are coming from. It is so hard to care for our children with mental illness. Sadly, the siblings are affected, too. Our friends and families have no idea unless they have experienced it in their families.

May, 30 2015 at 5:36 am

This is so true

May, 28 2015 at 5:34 am

I am so grateful to come across your blog. I am the parent of a daughter with schizoaffective disorder (age 20 diagnosed at age 15) and another daughter with major depressive disorder/general anxiety (age 22 diagnosed during childhood). I look forward to reading your posts. I also write a blog about caregiving through mental illness and felt so fortunate to come across your blog. Thanks so much, Gayle

May, 26 2015 at 4:37 am

I have spent most of my life taking care of my older sister who has a bipolar disorder and others things. It has destroyed my life and myself, too much suffering … Many times I had major depression, and I had to take care of her anyway, because my mother has never assumed the responsibility for my sister, she has put everything on my shoulders. Some people should never ever have children.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Christina Halli
May, 26 2015 at 5:06 am

Hi Lilian,
Thank you for sharing your experience. It sounds like it has been horrible for you. I'm glad you are here on HealthyPlace. You sharing your story will certainly help others.

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