Sibling Rivalry and the Mentally Ill Child

September 2, 2010 Angela McClanahan

“Mom always liked you best!”

Tommy Smothers made the lament famous; every sibling has likely heard it. But for those with mentally ill siblings—could there be some truth to it?siblings

Bob was supposed to be an only child. I was 29 when he was born, and didn’t foresee anyone taking on both of us within my remaining fertile years. Even after marrying my husband, I was adamant—Bob, with bipolar disorder and ADHD, demanded so much of our time, money and attention, there couldn’t possibly be room for another.

Of course, “life happens when you’re making other plans,” and “Two” was born when Bob was five. I always heard “the second is the opposite of the first,” and my boys are no exception. As difficult as Bob has been, Two has been a dream.

We worried about a second child. Our house is often tumultuous—when manic, Bob’s tantrums can escalate to requiring physical restraint; when depressed, his irritability often leads to anger. Were we wrong to willingly subject Two to that? If things spiraled out of control during Bob’s teen years, would I be willing to sacrifice one child for the sake of the other? The question that continued to surface was: Is it fair?

Indeed, Two won’t have it easy. I recently read this article about the impact of mental illness on well siblings and felt as terrible for Two as I often feel for Bob. Would he end up with his own psychological problems as the product of a crazy house? Would he feel pressured to be the perfect child so as not to further burden his already-overwhelmed parents?

Challenge of Liking A Child Who Is Difficult

Conversely, what about Bob? Where Two, with his happy-go-lucky demeanor and pleasant nature is easy to love, Bob is not. I love Bob, but it’s often very difficult to like him. I try to be conscious of this and not show any favoritism toward either child, but I always worry I might subconsciously do so despite my efforts. A recent episode of the popular t.v. series, Intervention, chronicled a “difficult” firstborn who turned to drug use following the birth of his siblings, noting how happy their mother was to have “normal children.” I watched in horror—was I that mother? Would Bob wind up a heroin addict because I loved his normal brother more?

brothersStill, watching my boys together melts my heart. Yes, Bob has been (for the most part) stable for the better part of Two’s life, and Two is still too young to know much, but it’s unbelievable how completely taken they are with one another. I’m sure it’s probably a tall order, but I hope that carries over to their future years.

Of course I’ll continue to worry—it’s my nature as a parent. But I think my being aware of the possibilities puts them at an advantage. I’m sure I’ll make mistakes, but hopefully none so terrible as to be permanently damaging to either boy. Because I don’t love either of them best—I love them both best.

APA Reference
McClanahan, A. (2010, September 2). Sibling Rivalry and the Mentally Ill Child, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 24 from

Author: Angela McClanahan

Susan Traugh
March, 1 2018 at 9:29 pm

Hi Julia,
I'm so sorry. This has to be a horrible situation for you and your children. Have you talked to your daughter's psychologist about what's going on? That would be my first choice if this were my daughter. Maybe you two can work out a plan together to keep both your daughter and your son safe. I would also contact NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) and find a support group or information session for you. This is too hard of a journey to face alone. Being able to talk to others who have walked a similar path might give you some support and help you find resources to help you along the way. Good luck to you.

September, 6 2010 at 1:27 pm

Hi Angela,
I wrote another comment, but this topic really hit home. My 13 year old son, Christopher is quite mentally ill as I wrote in the other comment.
His 10 year old sister adores him. Up until he was in grade 4, he was always so loving and nurturing of his little sister. Then all that changed.
Today, at age 13, he blatently describes how his little sister has "tried to kill him three times", and will try again, to the point where he has wanted to call the police.
His little sister is crushed, loves him unconditionally, and is extremely hurt. He can not tolerate her to be in any space he occupies, she cannot move around him, make any sort of sound, or he will flip. He is verbally abusive to her and myself, his mother. His whole life is his dad, who remains caught in the middle of all of us. My son has too many other cognitive disabilities to be able to reverse these fixed delusions. He remains fixated on the fact that she is "loved" more than he. I believe he turned on her we he started to resent her normalcy and ability to have friends and enjoy life.
We live in the house as a divided family - my husband cares for our son, I care for our daughter.
Thank you for letting me have my say,

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Julia Sousa
February, 25 2018 at 5:37 pm

Hi, I can understand that feeling, like you like one sibling more than the other. It can be aggravating at times. I have a daughter, age 9...who has been being sexually abusive to my 2yr old boy. I have been battling with choosing one child over another and I have had my daughter going to psychiatrist and psychologist, since she was 6 years old ( her father has been sexually abusing her, since she can remember, reported but, not guilty because of evidence (hymen not broke) biological father molested her since birth and now she's doing the same to my son. Please any comments please?

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