Learn More About Sibling Reaction to Placement
By Brooke Judkins, Ph.D.
When children enter SUWS of the Carolinas, they have been receiving a lot of attention within their family system. The poor decision making and problematic behaviors that preempt pre-teens and teens coming to SUWS of the Carolinas can become a vortex into which the family gets consumed, and in this vortex the pre-teen or adolescent is the primary focus. During the SUWS program, the clinical focus is the attending child and the supports that are provided for parents. From a family system’s perspective, the members that are not given much clinical attention during this process—and who perhaps experience less familial attention leading up to SUWS of the Carolinas—are siblings of the pre-teen or adolescent in treatment.
Though siblings are not participating in weekly calls with therapists and often are not exchanging letters with their sibling in treatment, they are nonetheless impacted by the wilderness process and continuing care decisions regarding placement after wilderness. While siblings of any age can feel the effects of placement, the impact is likely greater for children young enough to still be living in the parental home. Siblings age 18 and younger, then, will be the focus of the information being presented.Siblings’ reaction to placement at SUWS of the Carolinas will vary based on numerous factors such as age, gender, birth order, temperament, family dynamics, quality of sibling relationship prior to placement, how parents respond to placement, etc.
Generally speaking, it is likely that siblings remaining in the home will experience a range of emotions, though they may not talk about them or even be aware themselves that they are experiencing the feelings in response to their sister or brother being sent away. Among the emotions they experience may be a sense of relief that there is less fighting and tension in the family, that parents in a better mood and are less stressed out, or that their sibling is getting help for their problems. Siblings might also feel grateful or happy that mom and dad can give them more attention now and perhaps spend more time with them.
If, as is often the case, there is some degree of marital duress when parents are dealing with a troubled pre-teen or adolescent, then siblings could also feel hopeful that their parents will get along better now that the struggling child is out of the home.Having a family member gone from the home, though, regardless of the circumstances, is perceived as a loss. Along with these more positive emotions, there are also likely to be some painful and uncomfortable emotions.
The closer the sibling bond or relationship, it is likely the more sadness siblings at home will experience. At holidays, birthdays, and other family events this sadness might be heightened, especially early into placement. There also may be some degree of guilt or blame that siblings feel (Is it my fault that my sibling had to leave?) no matter how irrational it seems. Siblings may also experience fear on some level that the same thing could happen to them (If they sent my sibling away then they could also send me away!) even though, again, it might be irrational (they are A students who obey their parents, never miss curfew, rarely talk back, and don’t drink or use drugs). Other emotions experienced by siblings may also resemble those associated with grief, like denial and anger, especially if the attending child goes on to an out-of-home placement after SUWS of the Carolinas.
The denial might be a sort of disbelief that their sibling is not coming home, and may never live at home again (at least not while they are there), and difficulty accepting this reality. Anger may be experienced in relation to such a significant change (loss of a member) with little forewarning or preparation for it.
There also may be anger toward their sibling for getting in so much trouble that leaving home was a necessity, and possibly towards one or both parents for deciding to send their sibling away (moreso towards one parent if that parent had a more conflicted relationship with their sibling).What can parents do to help siblings cope with this period of loss and transition, and the accompanying emotions?
Be aware that your children at home are experiencing some reaction to their sibling being gone. Let them know that you are interested in what they are feeling and that it’s okay if they are sad, angry, scared, or feel relieved. They will also learn a lot from seeing that you are experiencing lots of emotions and that you are using healthy techniques to cope with them. While you don’t want to have an emotional breakdown in the presence of your children, it’s also not advisable to always have on a “happy face” and act like everything is okay.
Children are intuitive and pick up on underlying feelings even if parents are trying to hide them, so it is best to acknowledge your feelings (positive and painful) in an age-appropriate way for children. Instead of something to feel bad about or to hide, having uncomfortable emotions—yours or your child’s—can be an opportunity to find and demonstrate healthier, more effective coping strategies for these emotions. You don’t want to “fix” the emotions as they are a necessary part of the grieving process, but you can help your child learn how to cope with these feelings when they arise (for example, going for a bike ride or journaling instead of sitting in front of a screen).
If you are feeling overwhelmed or burned out and are not able to be fully present for them then seek the help of therapist who works with children and families. Also seek help from a therapist if you see negative changes in demeanor and/or behavior in children at home that persist for more than a few weeks. Your children at home are unique individuals—their reactions and grieving process may look different from yours, and from each others. Last, remember that you are doing something positive for the family by getting help for your pre-teen or adolescent and that siblings fare better when there is less tension and fewer arguments in the home.