What To Do When Your Sibling Is Getting All The Attention

Avi Muschel, PsyD Yeshiva University Counseling Center, NYC DrMuschel@gmail.com

Wonder was a 2017 box office hit chronicling the fictional life of August Pullman (Auggie), a 10-year old boy who endured many surgeries and medical issues leaving his face with severe damage. The movie beautifully portrays the challenges he encountered in school, mainly bullying, and how he heroically overcame them.

As a clinical psychologist who works at a college counseling center, I was very emotionally inspired by the movie, but must admit that I found the most moving character to be not Auggie, but his sister Olivia, or Via, as she’s known. Via grew up normally, with the same wonderful parents as Auggie, but without his many physical, and resulting social challenges. Via easily makes friends, does well in school, and has a relatively calm life, outside of some relationship stress with her best friend and new boyfriend. And that’s exactly the point the movie conveys so well: everyone, even the most “normal” and “healthy,” deal with challenges in life. What makes Via’s challenges more difficult is her need to experience them alone.

A Lonesome Struggle

As Via explains in the movie, “Mom and dad would always say I was the most understanding girl in the world. I don’t know about that. I just knew my family couldn’t take one more thing.” Via’s problems are real, if milder than those of her brother, but because of the intensity of his problems, she feels she cannot utilize her parents as resources, and she’s not completely wrong. She figures out how to do her schoolwork on her own, and learns to hide her relationship struggles from her parents as well as her disappointment in their limited emotional availability. Thankfully for Via, despite her issues and general need to deal with them alone, her mother is Julia Roberts and her father is Luke Wilson, and using their Hollywood super powers, they can ultimately detect when she’s feeling neglected. When they sense something wrong, they have the luxury of taking time off to try and immediately correct the issue by spending more time with her. For many of my students and clients, it does not always work out that way. (And, to be fair, even in the movie it doesn’t always work out perfectly.)

Ilana came to the counseling center because she was starting to feel overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, but believed she could not discuss the issue with her parents because they had an older daughter, Ilana’s sister, who was dealing with severe depression. The more I got to know Ilana, the more it became apparent that her struggles had been, and continued to be, very legitimate. However, because Ilana was a very good student and had a lot of friends, she was able to, and felt compelled to hide her issues from her parents. “They just can’t handle it,” she would explain to me. “I’m their ‘easy’ daughter; I can’t give them more problems.”

Sam was struggling pretty seriously in finding a healthy relationship. He was bright, popular, and articulate, but was struggling for several years to find a steady relationship. Sam however, like Ilana, was convinced that having a developmentally disabled sister made it unfair for him to further burden his parents. “Have you spoken to your parents?” I asked innocently. “No, I can’t. They’re already dealing with my sister. They just need me to be their healthy child that can get married quickly and give them grandchildren. They can’t deal with anything else right now.”

So what are they to do?

If Ilana and Sam don’t have Hollywood parents, how do they deal with overburdened parents? There is no great answer, but here are three tips for helping deal with this difficult situation:

1. Encourage getting parents involved

Some of my sessions with Ilana and Sam, and the many others like them, were devoted to helping them let their parents into their world, helping them appreciate that parents love all of their children, and would give anything to be helpful. It is impossible for a child to understand the miracle of the endless room in his/her parents’ hearts. Sometimes the client simply needs a little push; other times he/she requires the skills to properly communicate to his/her parents that they are needed more without leaving the parents feeling blamed. But regardless of what help the client needs, after encouraging them to speak to their parents, they almost always come back feeling happy that they did. (Of course, there are exceptions, and some parents really are too overwhelmed with one child’s issues to handle issues of the others. In those exceptional cases, and they are exceptional, the other two strategies should be prioritized).

2. Connect to your “allies”

In many issues relating to parents, not just Via Syndrome, I encourage clients to try and use one of the greatest resources they may have: siblings. Author Jeffrey Kluger argues that siblings are our most important relationship and the only relationship that we can potentially experience throughout our entire lives. Obviously, not everyone is blessed with siblings and some have siblings that are more hurtful than helpful. However, one way in which siblings are so crucial is that there is no one in the world who can quite understand the experience of being a child of one’s parents like a sibling. Whether it’s an “outsider” sibling or even the “higher needs” sibling (as Auggie was to Via), siblings can be an invaluable resource in understanding and helping cope with parental issues. Often it requires taking the first step, as the sibling may not feel comfortable reaching out, but as with speaking directly to parents, this intervention often yields positive results.

3. Acknowledge the difficulty

As an ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) therapist, many of my interventions will circle back to acknowledging the difficulty of a situation as opposed to fighting/avoiding the reality. Dealing with difficult issues without parents is not an ideal solution, but sometimes a person has no choice. Certainly neither Ilana nor Sam chose to have an emotionally challenged sibling, but part of life is managing difficult situations that we cannot change. As an integral part of ACT, clients must be committed to their values, such as family and relationships, but cannot choose the specific way in which they engage their value.

For Ilana and Sam, if they indeed value their family, they should continue to pursue a relationship with their parents, even if they will never be able to fully communicate about certain topics. Additionally, as above, family and relationships are not limited to parents, as siblings and friends can be helpful resources, even if they can never replace one’s parents. Ultimately, as Via herself concludes about her fate, “It doesn’t change the fact that my mother has a great eye; I just wish that one time she would use it to look at me.” Sometimes, just acknowledging the difficulty of a situation begins to make it easier.

Most diagnoses of the DSM V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) focus on the patient suffering the symptoms. An important lesson from the fictional character of Via is to appreciate how many people are suffering from Via Syndrome, struggling but having a sibling struggle even more and gaining the majority of their parents’ attention. In these difficult situations, there are no easy answers, but trying to talk to the parents, reaching out to siblings, and acknowledging the difficulty of the situation can be helpful in overcoming this common challenge.

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