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How to Support a Sibling Who’s Struggling

If you’re worried about your sibling’s mental health, here’s how you can help

Writer: Gaby Galvin

Clinical Experts: Stephanie A. Lee, PsyD , Kimberly Alexander, PsyD

en Español

I’ve always been told I have major Big Sister Energy, and with four younger siblings, that makes sense. When one of them is going through a hard time, I always want to help them work through their issues — but sometimes I overstep, especially if I’ve been through something similar in the past. Over the years, I’ve had to learn how to be there for my siblings without doling out unwanted advice or getting frustrated.

Siblings have a unique point of view on their family’s ups and downs. If your brother or sister is struggling with their mental health, they might come to you for help before turning to your parents. You might notice them acting out at home, but keeping quiet at school. Sometimes, you might even feel like a translator between parents and siblings who don’t seem to understand each other.

These issues aren’t as uncommon as you might think: One in five teens has had a major depressive episode, while anxiety affects about one in 11 kids under 18. Mental health experts want you (and me!) to know we’re not alone — and that there are ways to be there for a brother or sister who’s wrestling with anxiety or depression, while still taking care of ourselves, too.

Sibling dynamics can be complicated, and “figuring out that groove is a work in progress for every family,” says Stephanie Lee, PsyD, a clinical psychologist.

How to know if your sibling might need help

Kids are bound to be sad or anxious from time to time, especially if your family is going through a major change, like a big move, a divorce, or the death of a relative. Sometimes it might be embarrassing or hard to deal with, and Dr. Lee says that’s normal.

But if you notice persistent changes that affect your sibling’s day-to-day life — like if they lose interest in their hobbies, never want to see friends, seem angry all the time, or can’t seem to calm down when they get upset — there might be something more serious going on.

Keep in mind that you’re not responsible for how your brother or sister acts, just how you respond. “Sometimes your sibling may have trouble managing their emotions or their behaviors, and it’s not your fault,” says Kimberly Alexander, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “It’s not your role to manage those problems, but if you see something scary, then definitely say something.”

How to talk to your sibling

If your brother or sister comes to you with a problem, recognize that it’s probably hard for them to admit something is wrong. One big thing you can do is listen to them in an open-minded and non-judgmental way. It can help your sibling to know that their feelings are valid and being taken seriously.

At the same time, you don’t want to enable your sibling to wallow in bad feelings for too long, so it often helps to offer distractions such as going on a bike ride or starting a new TV show together. Ask how you can support them — for example, maybe your brother or sister wants your help bringing up the issue with your parents. If you and your sibling are close in age, these tips on how to help a friend with mental health challenges might be useful, too.

When (and how) to bring in your parents

If your sibling confides in you about a problem they’re having, you might feel like you’d be breaking their trust by telling someone else. But if you’re worried about their safety — if they’re using drugs, acting aggressively, or talking about hurting themselves — or if you feel overwhelmed with the situation, it’s time to get a parent (or another adult you trust) involved.

Try to find a neutral time to speak with your parents, when they aren’t busy working or taking care of your siblings and can pay full attention to what you’re saying. These conversations can be emotional at first, so do your best to stay calm when expressing your feelings. If you’re nervous about bringing it up, script out what you want to say beforehand.

Here’s how Dr. Lee suggests opening the discussion: “I’m not really sure how to start this conversation. I really need some help and I want to talk it through.”

Be specific about what you’re concerned about or what questions you have about your brother or sister’s behavior, she says, and try to “make sure that you’re telling your parents what you need, what you want, versus just complaining in those moments, which might make it harder for parents to help.”

Here’s one example of how this might sound: “When we walk home from school, sometimes my sister acts so wild that I get embarrassed and even worry about keeping her safe. What could we do to make that less stressful for me and safer for her?”

Sometimes it can take a few conversations before your parents fully understand the problem, so be ready to talk about the issue more than once. If your first conversation doesn’t go well, think about whether there’s a better way to communicate your feelings and what you want from your parents. For example, if your parents were dismissive of your concern that your sister seems depressed — “She’s just a little moody!” — you might try again, armed with more specific examples of behavior that worries you.

If you still don’t think your parents understand after a few tries, remember there are other adults around who can help, including teachers, coaches, school counselors, and other adults in your community. Some might be able to talk to your parents on your behalf, or even just validate your feelings and help you make a game plan to tackle the issue.

“There’s always a trusted adult if you don’t feel well-heard by your parents,” Dr. Alexander says. For example, “if you go to get a haircut and you always chat with your barber or your hairdresser — all of these individuals are a part of your ecosystem, so you can go to them as well.” Any adult you trust can help you talk things through and figure out where to turn for more support.

Check in with yourself

When your brother or sister is dealing with serious depression or anxiety, it can feel scary. If it’s hard or frustrating for you to deal with your sibling’s behaviors at times, remember that’s a natural feeling, too.

“You might feel resentment, or you might feel guilty about the way you feel about your sibling in some way,” Dr. Lee says.

Just try to keep your own reactions in check: It’s okay to feel embarrassed if your brother acts out in front of your friends, for example, but yelling at him will probably make both of you feel bad. And make sure you have your own friends and trusted adults around who you can talk to about the situation.

If family stress is starting to affect you personally, it’s time to check in with yourself. Make sure you’re doing the things that will keep you mentally and physically healthy — getting enough sleep, eating regular meals, exercising, and getting some downtime, whether you spend it reading a book, listening to music, or catching up with friends.

As far as your own mental health goes, try not to create your own anxiety by “borrowing worry” about your sibling, Dr. Lee says: “It’s not a great idea to start worrying, like, ‘Is it going to be this way forever? If he’s having trouble when he’s five, is he going to be like this at 29?’”

The bottom line is that you don’t know whether your brother or sister will continue to struggle, so don’t get ahead of yourself by assuming the worst. Support from your family and a mental health professional can make a big difference. You can also read more here about asking your parents about getting mental health support. In the meantime, have some patience with your sibling, your parents, and yourself.

“There are going to be things that are challenging,” Dr. Lee says. “The more you can let stuff go and not get too bogged down in it and be a little bit more targeted about what you’re trying to change…I think that that goes a long way.”

This article was last reviewed or updated on February 9, 2024.