Keeping Healthy Siblings Healthy
When One Child is Acting Out

By Nancy Ng


Hollyís workshop grew out of a group she facilitated for siblings of acting out adopted children. The group composed of 13 children from 4 families, was asked for suggestions to name the workshop.

Both of their ideas give pause to any of us who routinely expect our kids to coexist with disturbed children: "How to Survive When You Live with the Neighborhood Bully" and the "The Lost Children".

Hollyís unique experiences as a therapist working with adoptive families, a parent by birth and adoption and as a birth child in a family which included several adopted special needs children make her especially qualified to address the needs of these forgotten persons in adoption and to wonder what these children will remember about their childhood when they grow up. The children in question are those, adopted or not, who live with an acting out sibling whose problems might include: stealing; physical, sexual and verbal abuse; control issues; attempted suicide; hyperactivity; unresolved emotional issues and/or physical disabilities.

Too often families over-stressed by the acting out child fail to acknowledge the stress on the other children. In fact there is no hope for the acting out child if the family is not kept healthy.

Siblingís stresses might be considered as occurring in three time periods:

Initial adjustment: sibling rivalry is a widely recognized phenomenon. Normal kids experiencing the birth of a normal sibling feel jealous and often want to give the child back. The arrival of a disturbed older child is infinitely more traumatic.

Acute crises: a crisis might be sexual abuse toward another child, violence, a call from the school principal saying, "Come now!"

Chronic phase: Many troubled kids start to settle down when they experience a cycle of predictable occasions: the second birthday, the second Halloween, etc. Some kids donít. For them and their siblings trouble becomes part of their everyday lives. As one of our kids put it, "I can never have anything I want to keep unless I keep it locked up".

Chronic phase with acute episodes: Just about the time every one has adjusted to locking up their belongings or otherwise dealing with the chronic issues, the acting out child precipitates an acute crisis with new or escalated behavior.

Normal siblings can feel left out. Especially if there is sexual abuse, parents often donít let the other kids know what is going on. If all the emphasis is on getting help for the abuser the other children get the message "We canít protect you".

Healthy siblings need to deal with their jealousy and their loss of family position. No child wants to divide his parentís love.

Siblings feel angry at their parents at a time when parents are "sucked dry". Parents often have real needs to get from their healthier children. Healthy children remember a calmer, easier life before the acting out child arrived and are furious at the parents for their inability to control. Siblings are angry at the acting out child and at themselves for not feeling more positive. Siblings feel guilty about their "fantasy solutions" that might include a fatal car accident. Often siblings are afraid to express anger less they become like the acting out child.

Siblings experience embarrassment especially at school or on the school bus. They can feel victimized and be at risk for internalizing a victim mentality.

Adopted siblings fear that all adopted kids turn out like that acting out kid. Parents, too, might harbor to the same fear and need to apologize when they overreact to "normal" childhood stealing or lying.

Parents need to be models for their kids; able to say "I didnít expect it to be this hard. Iím disappointed that I canít control him" etc.

In most families siblings cannot compete with the intensity of feeling that surrounds the acting out child. Parents need to up the intensity of their dealings with other kids and act rather than react to the acting out behavior. Siblings need to be taught about sexual abuse. A "family pot" to pay for stolen or broken goods can be important.

Also important is the necessity for the family to have fun rather than focus on the often grim behavior of the acting out child.

  preparing for adoption : siblings
  family : impacts on siblings