Have you ever been standing right next to a fire engine when its horn started to blare? Or a police car when its sirens flipped on? Or a tornado siren when it sounded the alarm?
No? Well, this is the continual reality for a lot of kids who have siblings with behavioral disorders. They live life alongside a blaring siren twenty-four hours a day.
Can you imagine how that would feel?
Initially, the siren would catch your attention. It would also catch the attention of everyone around you. Life would stop for a bit while everyone waited for the siren to go away. But when it didn’t go away, you’d feel frustrated. You’d feel overwhelmed. Eventually, you’d be in complete sensory overload and not know what to do at all.
Your brain wouldn’t even be able to walk you through a set of options because it would be overwhelmed, too.
And if you think that’s not possible, let me tell you… I listened to “It’s a Small World After All” today at Disney World, and after about ten minutes of it, I wanted to gouge my ears out. And I’m an adult who has better-than-average coping skills. Imagine being a little kid who has to hear something that loud and obnoxious EVERY SINGLE DAY.
It’s too much.
Yet, the world expects these kids to continue functioning each day without having meltdowns because they’re not the behavior kids. They’re the ones who do what they’re asked without causing too many ripples in the pond. They’re not perfect, but they’re so mild compared to their siblings that they often go unnoticed.
Living in this environment, no matter how well-controlled it is, can be its own type of trauma for these kiddos.
PTSD can develop from all of the things these siblings see and hear. Things like seeing their brother punch holes in the wall, or hearing their sister scream endlessly for hours, or seeing their brother go after their mother with a weapon, or seeing their sister try to strangle herself with a shoe string.
Behavioral disorders are no joke, and the family members of the kids who have them witness some pretty scary things.
These behaviors (and others) can also cause severe anxiety in the siblings. The continuous nature of the behaviors–the going and going and going without stopping–can cause depression.
The kids with the disorders are often receiving services for areas where they need help, but the siblings who ALSO go through it are left to muddle through their trauma on their own.
Giving these siblings a break from the noise is important because they need to be able to think clearly again. Giving them a break from the chaos is important because they need to be able to get out of fight or flight mode (which they’ve probably been in nearly as long as their sibling). Giving them a break from the emotional exhaustion in important because they need to “fill their tanks” again. Giving them a break from the fear is important because they need to feel safe in order to function in other areas.
Did you know that feeling safe is the second most important need for a human, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?
If a kid doesn’t feel safe–in other words, if they’re afraid of what their sibling is going to do every second of every day–then they aren’t able to move up to the more refined areas of human need. These are needs like feeling a sense of belonging, feeling confident, or feeling a sense of purpose.
If they’re always afraid, they’ll get stuck on that need and work really hard to fix it.
These kids need time with their parents alone. They need time by themselves. They even need time in the quiet. They need time to be crazy. They need time to be mad. They need time to work through their own feelings.
They just need time.
If you’re looking in from the outside and seeing a family who has a child with a behavior disorder, don’t assume they’re playing favorites when they take time away from their kid who has ODD/RAD/Schizoaffective Disorder/DID, etc. Know that they’re taking time away from THE BEHAVIORS, not the child, so that they can all continue functioning in healthy ways.
They take breaks because loving themselves is the only way they can love their struggling family member.