Anxious Kids and Siblings
Emotions can be contagious, and one child's anxiety can potentially affect the whole family. Any parents raising an anxious child knows that their child's worries can tap into their own anxiety, only making their child's worry more intense. But as adults, we can take deep breaths, get our own therapy in order to cope more effectively, and in turn, help our children to cope with their own worries. But for siblings who don't necessarily yet have these skills, one child's anxiety can get in the middle of their sibling relationship. In this post, I will offer some validation as well as strategies for parents to help support their children's sibling relationships even--and especially--when anxiety lives there.
The Good News
Sibling relationships have the possibility of being some of the longest relationships in your children’s lives, and as parents, we want our kids to be close, feel connected. The good news is that a sibling relationship offers kids two of the most important adult relational skills: conflict and repair. Kids fight! They argue they wrestle, they push. And then they make up. Over and over and over again. And it's true that when they're young, conflict may look a little messy, but as they grow up, their ability to "fight fair" will be a life long relational skill. It's also true that with all that practice in "rupture and repair", children can grow to feel more secure in relationships, having learned first hand about unconditional, accepting love--ie. "I can be angry with someone and they can be angry with me sometimes and we still love each other and our relationship continues no matter what"--from their sibling relationship.
If one of your children struggle with anxiety the other good news is that a more outgoing sibling can push them outside of their comfort zone, expose them to novel situations, and reduce their risk of avoiding new things, which is often an anxious child’s first instinct--to avoid. It's also true that a sibling's anxiety can help other children in the family develop empathy and compassion (other critical relational skills)...even if you can’t see it yet!
Because emotions can be contagious, parents sometimes express concern that other siblings will "pick up" the anxiety, either by hearing and seeing anxious thoughts and behaviors in their sibling, or as a result of feeling frustrated or angry about accommodating their anxious sibling. Anxiety by nature wants to rule the house, but we can’t let it! Parents' most important job in this context is to keep their own anxiety in check, making sure that they are reflecting an air of confidence and security to all of our children in the face of worry, anxiety, fear...any emotion really. Sibling relationships are powerful, but children learn to co-regulate their emotions first and foremost through their relationships with the parents. And if parents are confident and secure, most likely children will feel confident and secure.
If one of your children does express frustration about accommodating their sibling's anxiety, this can be a good opportunity to teach your child the difference between "equal" and "fair", to help them understand life from different perspectives, to teach tolerance and patience, and--among parents--to reflect and brainstorm whether such accommodations are necessary or if there can be more room for flexibility.
In addition to mediating the impact of the anxiety, parents also want and need to protect their anxious children. Parents can do this just as they would protect all of their children. Specifically, parents need to ensure that other siblings are not putting their sibling down, teasing them, or shaming them for their anxiety (or anything else). Anxious kids--and all kids--need to know that their parents have their backs. And all kids need limits and education on respect, kindness and empathy.
Another challenge is related to sibling temperament and resulting dynamics. Sometimes parents struggle with one child who is very outgoing, loud, energetic and one child who prefers quiet, predictability and space. When parents recognize this dynamic and their children’s different emotional and physiological needs, it’s easier to protect the sibling relationship by allowing their anxious child time for space and quiet play, by allowing their outgoing child opportunities for adventurous play, and teaching compromise and flexibility. And lots of lessons on "personal space"! And when I say “easier”, I don’t mean ”easy”. Because it can be so hard!
When kids feel like they are seen for who they are, that their needs are recognized, that their parents protect and encourage them and love each child differently but fairly, the chances of siblings growing up with a close, connected relationship are excellent. And of course no parents get it perfect. We mess up and make up. Rupture and repair. Over and over again. And that's okay. Because that's life. And all of our kids can learn to feel secure in that.