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The Quiet Weight That Siblings Carry


When my youngest son recently opened up about the role he took on during his brother's struggles with addiction while on a long road trip back to college, it was eye-opening - and heartbreaking. He felt the need to be the "ok" one, not causing any extra burden for fear we had enough on our plates. He wanted to protect his brother from consequences, protect us from extra parenting worries, and also protect himself from the chaos.

As I listened, I recognized the silent psychological strain so many siblings take on - becoming containers for the fears, guilt and anxiety swirling around them. They adopt this protective, peacemaking stance of staying "ok" at all costs, bottling up their own overwhelming emotions so as not to make things "about them."

I realized the intricate inner acrobatics that he performed to safeguard himself and insulate his struggling sibling and drained parents from more pain - it's invisible labor. He navigated struggles in school, social and academic settings that he should have been able to share the burden of. He insisted on getting a job on top of his commitments in order to not have to ask for money. This manufactured forced maturity and resilience when he likely felt anything but.

Self-Minimization as a Coping Mechanism: For many, self-minimization becomes the coping mechanism. Acutely aware of parental resources being depleted, they decide being the "low-maintenance" one who won't be "another problem" is their best path. Academic issues, mental health challenges, sadness over fractured social circles – it all gets suppressed so they can quietly shoulder the family struggles.

Many carry ambiguous grief – the confidant they loved disappears emotionally before their eyes as addiction takes hold, but into what void exactly is unclear. And when recovery emerges, it's an ambiguous relief – recognizing the person they love resurfacing but carrying doubts about lasting transformation after so much conditioning that it won't last.

This self-minimization becomes a psyche-surviving coping mechanism for so many siblings. They're hyper-focused on creating the appearance of stability and putting on the soul-weathered face of resilience. Meanwhile, their true needs, fears, anger and identity circumstances get stuffed deep - suspended in a waiting room while the family crisis center takes priority.

The Quiet Resilience: Through the turmoil and feeling of abandonments that are brought on during family fragmentation, it's often the siblings who become the artificial pillars holding unstable foundations together. The forces of resilience upholding some semblance of normalcy and steadying the emotional load their parents carry.

And for all their appearance of strength, we must recognize they're pressed into roles exceeding their preparedness. Packing away tangled inner lives to reliably be the family bricklayers.

The Healing Empowerment: What I came to realize, on my long road trip, is that my son had been a kid, forced into service roles far exceeding his tools of managing. He packed away his tangled emotional life into his childhood's toy chest in order to be our families' dependable one. With perspectives like my son's, it's clear those chests are heavy buckets we'd do well to finally allow to put down.

During those hours on the road, I was able to validate his struggles with empathy and create firm spaces to process his experiences. I was able to liberate his role, and empower him to use the wisdom from his perseverance and perspective to create new trails for our entire family's healing. For maybe the first time, he was not being led, but leading our family into new opportunities of healing and connection. The quietest voice in our family's choir held answers for all of our healing, and I'm so grateful for that shared time and perspective after far too long of going unheard.

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I think many children take on similar roles when things are "less than "

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