by Muffy Walker, MSN, MBA
Muffy Walker, of the International Bipolar Foundation, writes a mental health column for KRL every other month.
Do you find it difficult to talk with your children about their sibling’s mental illness? No matter what the age of the siblings, strange behaviors in their sister or brother can be very frightening. Some of us may plan to talk with our children about this important issue, but due to our own anxiety, we delay it. It may be uncomfortable talking about it, but don’t worry if you haven’t started yet, it’s never too late. Educate yourself about bipolar disorder so that you feel comfortable imparting information and help erase the stigma associated with myths and misinformation.
As with so many other “teaching moments,” your child’s age, ability to understand and process and their level of maturity will dictate just how much you should share. Providing information and using terminology that is age-appropriate will make it easier for them to understand. If your five year old asks, “What’s wrong with Jimmy, he’s so mean to me”, you might respond that “Jimmy loves you but he is having a bad day”, whereas your answer to a 12 year old might include, “Jimmy loves you. He has an illness that sometimes makes it difficult to control his behaviors,” and to a 16 year old, “Jimmy has a brain illness called Bipolar Disorder. Sometimes he has very bad days where controlling his behaviors is difficult.”
As with most children, small doses of information are best, allowing them to ask questions and digest what they’ve been told. Doing a little at a time can help both you and your children from feeling overwhelmed. Be sure to listen to your child’s response, both verbal and non-verbal cues. If your child gets up and leaves during the conversation, it might be a bit too over-whelming or scary. Be sure to circle back at some point during the day to check in on his/her anxiety level and to let them know you are available to talk.
As we know, some mental illnesses are biochemical brain disorders that are heritable, meaning they are passed down from generation to generation. Although your other children may be at risk, it isn’t a guarantee that this will happen and it is not contagious.
As was discussed above, addressing this fear should be handled on an age-appropriate basis. Educating children that the disorder is hereditable, and reassuring them of the unlikelihood of it, can help ease their angst. On the other hand, older siblings do need to know of the risk so that they can be proactive should they experience any symptoms, maintain a healthy life style, preferably free of drugs and alcohol and include its presence in their family medical history.
In addition to fear of getting the disorder, siblings may also experience guilt (why am I okay?), anger (Jimmy ruins every holiday), embarrassment (I can’t bring my friends around when Jimmy is so out of control) or feeling neglected by parents (my parents spend so much time with Jimmy). By being available, open, and non-judgmental, you can help your child process these feelings. In some cases, individual or group therapy may be prescribed.
It is important to remember that the needs of your ill child do not always have to come first. Mental disorders do affect the whole family, so keeping your other children safe should be a priority and a plan the whole family embraces. This plan should include a safe place where your bipolar child can go where s/he cannot hurt himself and nothing can be damaged. Once again, age may dictate where this room is and if the child should be left alone. Siblings should likewise have a safe place to get away from a brother or sister who is “raging”, threatening or frightening.
A list of contact phone numbers should be made available including: police (a psychiatric emergency team if available in your town), a trusted and informed neighbor, your mobile and/or work numbers, and older siblings or relatives.
Remember to keep your child’s medications out of reach of younger siblings.
You may also consider getting some age-appropriate books to help your child learn at his/her pace.
The bottom line is to be sure your children know s/he is not at fault, that you love them unconditionally, that the sibling loves them and is not meaning to frighten them, and that you are always available.
Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more mental health related articles.