Focus Also on Your Well Children This Holiday Season

Carolyn Reinach Wolf--Mental Health Lawyer, posted December 12, 2023-Reviewed by Ray Parker


“Well sibling syndrome” impacts families affected by mental illness.


For many of us, the winter holidays are about family togetherness. Even amidst the stresses and challenges that too often pervade the season, there is a strong pull among families to bridge whatever distances exist—whether geographic or emotional—and be in each other’s thoughts if not their direct company.


Of course, families can be incredibly complicated, with numerous overlapping priorities competing for individuals’ limited attention. This is especially true in families affected by serious mental illness. The significant time and resources required to manage such conditions and the associated elements can be all-consuming. For this reason, I often encourage parents and other family members coping with this challenge to use the holiday season as an opportunity to focus on the healthy children in their household—school-aged or adults. These individuals often have their needs de-prioritized as a direct result of their siblings’ diagnoses and end up feeling invisible.


Social scientists have coined a phrase for this dynamic: “well sibling syndrome.” It applies not just to siblings of those with mental illness but also to siblings of those with cognitive and physical challenges. I saw it firsthand when I worked in genetics, helping families affected by serious developmental disabilities—work that called to me before I became a mental health attorney. It wasn’t difficult to recognize the same dynamic among the families who eventually sought out my mental health legal counsel.


While well sibling syndrome is acknowledged as a largely overlooked area of study, it doesn’t take a social scientist to understand that the needs of such children, whether minors or adults, include (but often aren’t limited to) more time and attention from their parents and families. Additionally, spending time with their well children can serve as an emotionally beneficial respite from the work of managing mental health issues. I can’t think of a better time to prioritize these interactions and perhaps resolve to make more room for them in the coming year.


Carving out more time for well children on an ongoing and more frequent basis often requires parents to formally let go of many of the responsibilities they’ve taken on to manage their other child’s mental illness. In my mental health practice, I counsel parents on how to accomplish this, using tools like trusts, estate planning, and third-party guardians or conservators. While this can represent a difficult transition, it is often imperative among families seeking to create a new, healthier, and balanced dynamic. In my experience, it can also lead to improved outcomes for the child impacted by mental illness, taking parents off the decision-making “firing lines” and letting them go back to being just Mom and Dad.


What’s more, these efforts provide the well children peace of mind about their own futures, formalizing plans that don’t depend on them taking care of their siblings for the rest of their lives. The holiday season comes and goes, and before long, the to-do lists and obligations again arise in the New Year. Before that time comes, I strongly suggest families affected by serious mental illness carve out time with their well children and consider how to do so on a more frequent basis in 2024.