It can be worrying when your family has a history of mental illness. But it’s important to remember all is not lost. In episode 263, I received a question from a listener concerned about that sibling who was worried they would inherit the same mental health struggles as their sibling and parent. In this post, I talk about this in more detail, talk about why it isn’t inevitable that they will get the same issue, and how you can use this knowledge to help set you up for a positive future.
How to deal with the situation where my younger sibling is scared that they will develop the mental illness that I have once they reach adulthood (they’re currently in their younger teenage years)? This illness runs in my family since one of our parents also have it. What are some things they can do to prevent this from happening?
Great question and thank you for thinking about your sibling. That’s really sweet of you.
Obviously, I don’t have a lot of details here, so I don’t know exactly what mental illness we are talking about. I’m going to assume that this isn’t like a genetic disorder or developmental disability. Other issues like bipolar and schizophrenia do appear to have a genetic component where family members are more likely to also have the issue, but it’s certainly not 100%.
I do think that it’s important that they understand the risk there. It’s better for them to understand something about what’s happening if they do end up developing similar issues rather than just being completely blindsided by it. They also need to understand that this isn’t some sort of death sentence. There are a lot of factors that go into the development of mental health issues. Even if you have a genetic vulnerability to a particular issue, it often takes something in your life or environment to kick it into gear.
Learn from generational knowledge
Your sibling has the benefit of generational knowledge as well. Seeing what you and your parent have been through helps them understand a lot more about the pitfalls and stressors to be careful of. In some cases, avoiding the issue entirely may not be totally possible, but they can gain a great understanding of how to not let it impact their life as significantly because they have so much second-hand knowledge. So given that they are a young teenager, the best approach would probably be to reassure them that it isn’t inevitable that they will get the same issue. However, given the strong family history, they will probably have some elements of it, even if not a full-blown mental health disorder. At the very least, there may be some unique tendencies that are similar. Therefore, even if they aren’t going to end up getting the same mental illness, they can certainly benefit from some knowledge and coping skills related to it.
It helps that most mental health coping skills are just good practice for life in general, so learning some of these things may benefit them in other ways, such as with their journey in school. Things like methods for grounding and relaxation to help regulate their physiology will be helpful regardless of whether they have significant mental health issues. Approaching vs avoiding situations that cause anxiety may also be an important skill to build in order to help them gain self-efficacy. Being mindful and practicing things like meditation can help during intense situations and also generally improve focus and selective attention. Journaling and tracking their emotional state is a skill that anyone would benefit from.
I hope you see what I’m getting at here. Understand that this is not an inevitability, but that it may definitely be an influence. Given that, understand more about the disorder so you know what to look out for, and then build some skills that will be helpful regardless of whether they come up against that specific issue or not. Also, teach them what sort of resources are out there or connect them if need be. Just because you have your own experience, you aren’t necessarily an expert in the subject. Maybe getting them hooked up with someone who can help them feel more confident in their ability to recognize any issues that pop up and adapt to them if need be.
There’s no need to feel guilt
It may be tempting to feel guilty in a situation like this as well, as if it’s your fault or your parent’s fault that they are how they are. Don’t forget that you are also uniquely equipped to help them understand what’s going on. Imagine that this wasn’t a mental health issue, but a physical one. Say you had a genetic heart defect that caused you to get arrhythmia in certain situations that are very consistent within your family. That would be awesome for them to be able to have the inside scoop on what to look out for and to help normalize their experience. You would probably not feel the same sort of guilt in that situation and you could be very reassuring and helpful to them.
So those are my thoughts. You may or may not be able to fully prevent the mental health issue from happening to them, but regardless there are some things that can be done and it’s also important to keep things in perspective. Thank you!
You can listen to this on Episode 263 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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