A Mental Health Truth: One Child Can Impact an Entire Family

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. The negative behavior of one child profoundly impacts the family – soon touching every member.

Sadly, there’s no quick escape.

Maybe the diagnosis is Bipolar Disorder or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Maybe Reactive Attachment Disorder or Autism. Maybe early trauma or abuse. Most importantly, all are related to mental health and the brain’s inability to accurately process language or situations.

Family 2002

My home wasn’t immune. Over a very long four-year period, one of my sons created chaos every day – sometimes every hour. Although several psychiatrists tried different medications in various combinations, his moods never fully stabilized.

One moment happy. The next exploding into a rage.

My patience held out most days. Yet the stress was too much for my other five children – especially when he targeted them with his verbal and then physical aggression. As some parents know from experience, a child’s brute force during a rage can be not only dangerous – but downright scary.

Eventually my kids targeted me for “not being hard enough on him” and “letting him get away with everything.” Like the blame game was going to help!

Now I had to deal with a group of disgruntled siblings – with their own mental health issues, on top of my son’s challenges. And a vicious cycle soon unfolded with each side triggering the other.

Every day.

But I refused to watch my son become further isolated at home. He received more than his fair share at school.

More than anything, my son needed to feel a part of the family, although he refused to acknowledge the situation. Self-sabotaging was easier. Yet I knew a genuine connection could be more powerful than any psychotropic drug.

With so many negatives at play, I made a conscious choice – to focus primarily on the positives. 

Craig Peterson family 2005One family strength immediately rose to the top. On the darkest of days, my children could be highly effective in reaching their brother. Because they understood his quirks. Because they cared for him – even as their frustrations boiled.

If they could get him laughing – and I mean really laughing, his foul mood magically disappeared. 

That humor was powerful. It could turn off the “fight or flight” reflex of the amygdala – a small, deeply embedded part of brain. It could also divert a crisis.

Without going to the hospital. Without calling the police.

With no one hurt. With nothing damaged.

So I decided to raise my expectations of my children – ages nine through 14 at the time. One-by-one I talked to them. Some simply required a nudge while others needed time to process their feelings. In the end, all gave me their commitment to do more to help their brother.

By involving my children – rather than shielding them – the situation imoroved greatly. 

To maintain that commitment, I learned to carefully “time” my requests for assistance. And I never insisted upon participation. But you know what? During nearly every crisis with my son – when my presence became an instant trigger for further aggression, someone went to him.

Sometimes more than one.

My children responded with compassion. By working together as a team, their mediation skills continually improved. Without reacting. Without feeding an argument that no one would win, my son lost much of his power.

As their parent, I couldn’t have been more pleased and praised their efforts – not once but in multiple ways times. 

Just ask my youngest son about me regularly making French toast – her favorite meal. Sometimes for breakfast. Sometimes for lunch. Sometimes for dinner.

He had accomplished an amazing feat that I couldn’t do alone.


Over the last decade, we’ve never fully eliminated my son’s erratic behaviors. But we have survived as a family. And in the process, my children learned a valuable lesson about empathy.

Today I seldom need to ask for their assistance. They readily make their brother laugh on their own.  



Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE

To follow Craig’s progress in writing a book about raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love

To follow Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page. Andrew Peterson Goes for the Gold

One thought on “A Mental Health Truth: One Child Can Impact an Entire Family

  1. I have a daughter who certainly had a rough time growing as a sibling with a sister with FASD who is now a very wise, compassionate, and awesome adult. Her lived experience has made her who she is today, and she is able to be a role model to others when confronted with someone with an invisible disability. She knows to think past the behaviour to see that the person may be hurting or afraid in the moment. I was so worried about her when she was young. No more.

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