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Jan Rao

Jan Rao is the founder and executive director of the non-profit organization Willows In The Wind. Jan Rao's child attended a residential therapeutic program as a teenager. She and her partner Robin saw a need for a safe meeting place where parents of adolescents with behavioral, cognitive, and/or mental health issues could share their stories glean resources and feel heard and understood. Over a decade later, Willows In The Wind offers monthly parent support groups, parent coaching, transition planning, and after-care support. In the interview, Jan discusses the impact of a child attending a therapeutic program on the siblings and how they can be supported both during and afterward by their parents.

Interview 4/6/23

Are there any common patterns of struggle you see with the siblings of special needs children or children in theraputic centers?


Yes, I would say the most common struggles that siblings have are anger at their sibling because they feel like they've ruined the family. They feel like their sibling has caused a lot of problems in the family. And they're angry because of the way they feel the family has been shattered. I think there's also a great deal of anger around loss and grief. Because everybody in the family kind of goes through the grief cycle when one of the members leaves for treatment. So I think there's a lot of grief around and missing that sibling as well.


How do you think these struggles could then translate long-term for the siblings later in their lives as they grow up?


I think their sibling is always on their mind and that their family went through that. What we hope for is that the family heals and that the child that has been in treatment is able to heal and come home. And then the family, through this process has also been working on their own issues because this is never one person. This is always about the entire family unit. So I think it, I think, again, generally can leave a memory of loss, a memory of a very difficult time, a memory of hope. But mostly, we hope for a family to heal enough to recognize that the entire family can work on this and heal. However, this isn’t always the case. I've seen cases where siblings don't talk to each other as adults because the road that was traveled has not been mended. They still are resentful of the fact that that sibling caused so much trouble, so it could go either way.


Are there any silver linings or lessons that a sibling could learn from this experience?


I think it's really hard when they're really young to understand the process of what their parents are going through and what they are going through. I think there's much more knowledge when they're older of understanding that their sibling needed help in a different kind of way. Hopefully, they can understand that as adults, and sometimes they don't until their kids are older and married and have kids of their own. So I think it's a process of maturity to really understand that. 


What would you tell the parents about how they could best their other children during this difficult time?


That's a great question and a great question that comes up a lot. We tell parents to spend extra time with the sibling to answer any questions they possibly can, as honestly as they can. There are the older ones that may get it a lot easier, but tell the younger ones that we all need something different to help us grow up. And as parents, it's our responsibility to try to find that for our children. And for some of our kids, they have to go to treatment to get what they need to get to the next level. And so for us to try to help us our kids understand that, that this is necessary that the whole family is going through it. Very often, siblings have been cast aside, especially if they're the kind of kids that don't cause much trouble. They tend to really suffer because they're put accidentally on the sidelines. And I won't say they're neglected, but they feel like they're neglected. And so they really need a lot more time with parents to really feel like they're valued in the family.


What would be your advice for the siblings themselves when trying to heal their sibling relationship afterward?


There again to talk about their feelings. If they can't get that kind of support at home, then let their parent know that they need to talk to somebody like a therapist. I think therapy is very beneficial for the sibling, especially if they have parents that have a really hard time talking. Sometimes, everybody is so bound up in their own grief. They forget how important it is to communicate as a family. So if they can get family therapy, where they can all do it together, I would say do it. And if that's not possible, to at least get somebody for their other children that they can talk to and let their feelings out.

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