Sibling dynamics can be tricky in any family. However, in a family where a child is struggling with their behavior or mental health they can be even more difficult to navigate. Sibling resentment can build quickly if one of your children feels like the other is getting more attention, is being embarrassing in public, or they feel like you are constantly "choosing the side" of their sibling over them (when we know you are just trying to keep the peace in your house). This has become by far one of our most popular topics because just about every family we work with is dealing with it to some degree. So, if you're noticing some sibling resentment growing in your house just know that you are far from alone.
As we know hindsight is 20/20 so we sat down with two siblings who are now adults to discuss their experiences with sibling resentment. Audrey and Sam's older sister Kim has struggled with her mental health since they were all children and Audrey and Sam have some really helpful insight on what parents can do to help alleviate it.
"I wanted fairness so badly. I really fought for it and I never understood why I couldn't have it. I didn’t really understand what they meant by 'being sick.' We had the same lives and she looked completely fine. She did have these over-the-top outbursts but other than that our lives were so similar but she wouldn't get punished for things that I got punished for. I was very resentful and I didn’t get it at all. My parents had a hard time explaining it to me," said Audrey when asked whether or not she ever experienced sibling resentment as a child. Kim is the oldest child at 28, Audrey is 26, and Sam is 23. Because of Kim and Audrey's closeness in age, Audrey mentioned that she was in very close proximity to Kim's challenges as a child.
"I remember always going to the doctor's office with Kim. I was at the age where I had to go to the appointments because I was too young to be left home alone. It was hard for my parents to explain to me that she was sick," said Audrey.
She went on to explain; "I had a lot of anger towards them for a while. She was my older sister and she would get away with a lot of things because of her illness. She would steal from me and my parents would tell me that it wasn't her fault and I needed to hide my money better. Now that I am older I see that parenting each child is so different but I just remember thinking how unfair everything was, I was so mad."
"Me, my mom, and my sister always got into these arguments. They were way more intense than your average argument with family should be. It was very emotionally draining to go through those fights. I know she was battling within her own brain but sometimes it felt like I was too. I watched my mom get so upset, I watched Kim get upset, and I am a sensitive person, to begin with so I would get upset too. It was really hard on Sam and me, we never really knew what kind of mood Kim would be in each day."
Sam remembers he and Audrey regularly turning to each other for support when things got intense in their house. "I have a lot of memories from when I was really young and her being very angry. She would get into arguments with my parents a lot and it would escalate fast. Screaming fits and back and forth anger. Audrey and I would huddle together and remove ourselves from the screaming," said Sam. "Audrey and I have this shared experience of dealing with all of that together. We know what to expect from one another and have both become outlets for each other," said Sam.
"Especially as a kid, you think that your sibling is making all of these choices and they are doing it on purpose to hurt you. Sometimes people with mental illness can act or do things that just may not make sense to you. It is easy to get angry and resentful but it is very hard to understand and forgive. Practice forgiveness with your sibling, it won't come right away but remind yourself how much you love them."
When asked what advice Sam would give to a child who feels resentful that their sibling is struggling and requires more attention he said; "It is really hard to understand that it isn't their fault. Even though everybody keeps telling you that, it is hard to see past how your sibling is acting and think about why they are acting that way. Especially as a kid, you think that your sibling is making all of these choices and they are doing it on purpose to hurt you. Sometimes people with mental illness can act or do things that just may not make sense to you. It is easy to get angry and resentful but it is very hard to understand and forgive. Practice forgiveness with your sibling, it won't come right away but remind yourself how much you love them."
Both Sam and Audrey are in agreement that it is important that you surround yourself with friends that do not judge you, your family, or your sibling that is struggling. "I was pretty transparent with my friends. At first, I did keep it on the down-low but as it became more of an issue I became transparent. I did not want to keep it a secret but it is hard for anybody else to understand. They are very supportive. When I told them specific things about her schizophrenia, like; collecting trash or hitting herself they didn't really know how to react but they are always there for me." said Sam. "Now, yes I have great friends. They know the struggles that she deals with and they are really there for me. Before I tried to keep a lot of it behind closed doors but now I have a great group of friends that have become a support system for me." said Audrey.
As for parents who have children that experience sibling resentment Audrey's advice is; "Sit down with them and really explain the disadvantage that the other child has instead of broad terms like sick. Really explain to them the challenges their sibling is facing on a daily basis and why they may act or are being treated differently. I am sure my parents did this for Sam and me but as a child, I was pretty blind to the other side. Make sure you spend time with all of your kids as much as possible and show attention to each and every one of them. Sometimes your other children may be suffering in the dark." said Audrey.
"Sit down with them and really explain the disadvantage that the other child has instead of broad terms like sick. Really explain to them the challenges their sibling is facing on a daily basis and why they may act or are being treated differently."
Sam explained that although conversations surrounding mental health can be sensitive, he encourages parents to try and remove that sensitivity, "We always had open communication. We always talked about Kim and how she was doing. I remember one day my dad started talking to me and he was casually talking about the symptoms that Kim had and what he thought would help her. It became a very normal conversation for us as a family and that made it a lot easier on all of us. It is sensitive and it's so important but try to not make it so sensitive, just keep talking about it."
Breaking down that stigma in their house helped Sam to feel comfortable reaching out to his parents when he went far away for college and began to struggle with his own mental health. "I got really homesick and I wanted to come home. They were so great. They helped me get the support I needed and helped me to reorient myself and get myself back together. They are just good people to talk to when you need someone to talk to." said Sam.
Now in their twenties both Audrey and Sam are able to see why their parents parented the way that they did, and they both mentioned having a lot of admiration for the deep love and sacrifices that they made for all three of them. While this is a story about the sibling resentment that Audrey and Sam experienced as a child it is also about a family banding together to support each other as they continue to advocate for and support Kim. "It has brought us all a lot closer together and we are very motivated to never let this happen to anyone else. My mom has been doing such great work and I know this is really hard but I think it's important for us to take what we have learned from all this and pass it on to the next family that goes through something similar. Nobody should have to watch their loved one go through that." said Audrey.