The Sibling Effect

IMG_4527My heart aches a bit as my eldest son and I sip, slurp, and empty spoonfuls of chocolate mint cookie milkshakes into our mouths at the diner counter. I’ve spent the last three days eating “comfort food” and I’ve probably gained the weight to prove it. Michael is looking tired and haggard, having been given permission to take a break from his exhausting training schedule to say goodbye to mom.

“I’d never hear the end of it from my mom if I didn’t let a young man take time to say goodbye to his mother,” the Director told him earlier that day.

So we sit at this counter, talking about how training is going for the school-year-long volunteer position he will be holding in the first year dormitory. Michael is a sophomore and he will be positioned to support incoming freshman as they navigate their new college experience. He was tickled to be back and excited to begin training when we arrived. Glancing at him now, I can see that the light that was in his eyes yesterday has dimmed some. I’m not sure if it’s exhaustion or something else I see.

“I’m having a tough time with some of the communication training. It’s not upsetting to anyone else because they didn’t have the experience growing up that I did,” he tells me.

“Something about growing up in our home?” I ask, wondering what it is we did to put him in this position.

“Yes,” he says. “They’re having us do exercises on how to say things to people. It’s upsetting to me because of all the times I had to be careful of what I said at home because I didn’t want to upset Blake. It feels like walking on eggshells.”

“You mean, it’s triggering those feelings from when you were worried you’d say something that would set him off?”


“I guess this is one of those lingering effects of growing up with a brother or sister with OCD.”

“I’m tired of being careful of how I say things. I did that for too long.”

I don’t know what else to do, but listen to him as he shares, and to let him know that I believe in him. I recognize that part of this is fueled by exhaustion and the intensity of his training. Yet, I also recognize that OCD can significantly affect more than just the sufferer. Siblings are not frequently mentioned at conferences and in studies on the matter, though they are among those most impacted.

I’ve run support groups for siblings who’ve shared how they’ve been the target of their siblings’ OCD, leaving them feeling perplexed, angered, or downtrodden. I’ve watched siblings being chased by their screaming brother or sister who has OCD, as the sibling with OCD seeks to beat away the OCD demon. I’ve watched as Blake cringed when Michael came near, believing that Michael was contaminated, and I’ve seen Michael finally losing his cool, screaming at his brother, hating the OCD.

Sometimes I think we are past those childhood times. I think that Blake and Michael have both matured enough to know how to deal with things better. Tonight reminds me that, while things may improve, the scars are still there. Sometimes, they still flare up and hurt. Knowing that I will be over 2,200 miles away from him, I remind Michael that the school’s counseling services are there if he needs them. He doesn’t want to hear this. Maybe it was unnecessary for me to suggest it. Still, it is a reminder that siblings of those with OCD bear parts of the disorder, too, and they often need just as much support and understanding.


5 thoughts on “The Sibling Effect

  1. Thank you for posing this. My oldest has 2 siblings with OCD. AND I know how much it had affected the entire family. My youngest grew up from age 1 with a dysfunctional sister in the flares of severe OCD. And so when he was showing signs early, we didn’t know if he was copying his sister until a few years later when it became more apparent that he was not just copying here.

    1. Yes, you most certainly do know how much it affects siblings and the whole family. How confusing it must have been at first when you didn’t know if you were seeing imitation or the real thing. In my post I wrote about some of the negative effects on siblings. At the same time, Michael admits having his brother has also made him more accepting and sensitive to others with special needs. Wondering if you’ve observed the same. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      1. I have seen how it makes my oldest son more sensitive to special needs. He is even considering studying psychology now which he never expressed an interest in before. I would like to think it will help make all 3 of my children more sensitive to special needs. My middle child, the first one with OCD definitely has that in her and is now an age where she can more openly talk about some aspects of her OCD.

  2. Great post, Angie, and not only is OCD hard on siblings, it’s also hard on parents who have to see all their children affected. But, as you say in your comment, there can be positive effects on siblings as well, and that’s something I’ve certainly noticed in my own family.

    1. Oh yes, it is so hard to be in the middle of your children watching how everyone is affected – when the way they are affected is difficult. At the same time, it’s uplifting when you recognize the way that everyone has gained something that’s positive from the entire experience!

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