An illness can cause fear, worries for siblings

A child's illness affects the entire family. Siblings may become upset about a long separation from parents or other caregivers. They may be uncomfortable with visits to a hospital or changes in routines at home. Siblings may behave differently under these circumstances. Each sibling’s response to stress is unique, but each needs understanding and reassurance. Changes in behavior usually are temporary and should resolve as the family establishes a new routine.

Brothers and sisters often have unspoken questions and fears when a family member is first diagnosed. For example, they may not understand the diagnosis or why your child cannot come home. Siblings commonly wonder if they or your child might have done something wrong to cause an illness. They also may worry that they could catch the illness and wonder who will care for them in your absence. Talk about these concerns with your children, and answer their questions in honest, simple language. This will help you maintain their trust and keep the lines of communication open.

Siblings who spend little or no time at the hospital might imagine circumstances that are quite different from what is really happening. When possible, encourage brothers and sisters to visit the hospital. Child life specialists can meet with siblings to prepare them for some of the new things they will see. For siblings who are unable to visit, child life specialists can assist caregivers in making family members part of the hospital experience. Our specialists can give caregivers materials to send home, such as books, current audio and video recordings, photos, medical play dolls and personalized letters to explain the patient’s diagnosis.

Here are suggestions for offering support to siblings:

  • Talk honestly about the child’s illness, using words siblings understand.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” as an answer to their questions.
  • Show your own feelings. This lets them know feelings do not have to be hidden and you can trust and talk to one another.
  • Demonstrate positive coping skills.
  • Ask how they are feeling. Listen and validate their feelings.
  • Exchange letters, photos, phone calls or videos that show what the patient and caregivers are doing while away from home.
  • Stay aware of important activities and events in the siblings’ lives while you and your child are away.
  • Positively recognize the siblings for taking on a responsibility or making a sacrifice for the benefit of the family.
  • Let siblings know who will be taking care of them while you are away.
  • Talk to the siblings’ school teachers or counselors so they are aware of the hospitalization.
  • Plan times to do something special for or with the siblings.
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