To parent or care for a sick child is all-consuming—and to be a parent or caregiver of more than one child during this difficult time can seem impossible. But as a parent or caregiver, you know it isn’t. Your love for all of your children is what brings you here now. You want to do what’s best for each of them.
You know your sick child’s siblings will not go through this experience unaffected. They will have their own emotions, reactions, needs, wants and requirements. We’ve compiled this article to help you understand where they’re coming from and how you can best care for them.
Understanding Siblings’ Feelings & Experiences
According to WebMD, siblings of sick children experience a range of emotions that may include:
- Feeling ignored. It’s common for siblings to feel ignored or set aside as a family’s attention turns to the sick child. This can lead to a fear of abandonment, as well as jealousy and anger. Moreover, it can have a lasting impact on siblings as they age.
- Guilt and resentment. Ignored siblings may begin to think negative thoughts about their sick brother or sister. If they weren’t sick or if they weren’t around, then perhaps life with mom and dad would get back to normal. On the heels of these thoughts comes guilt, as siblings begin to worry that their negative thoughts may have some impact on their sibling or their family.
- Fear. Siblings of sick children also fear many other things, from being scared that they or other family members will also get sick to worrying they did something bad to cause the illness. There’s also the fear of the unknown regarding what’s going to happen next and to whom. Additionally, if the sibling feels they’ve been sidelined, a fear of abandonment is likely.
The best thing you can do to alleviate the pain of these emotions is to involve siblings at all stages of your sick child’s illness, from the initial diagnosis through treatment and beyond. Here are several tips that we hope will help you do just that.
8 Tips to Care for Siblings of a Sick Child
1. Have Honest Conversations With Each Child
Children are innately curious, and they ask a lot of questions. It’s important to answer their questions honestly and to address their fears and concerns.
“Reassure them that they are loved and important to you, and whatever their brother/sister is going through it is not their fault nor will they be stricken with the same illness.”
Remember to adjust what you share and how you share based on each sibling’s age and developmental level. Also look to other resources for information to help siblings process what’s happening, such as age-appropriate books, movies and educational videos. Your child’s care team can help provide these tools for you.
The key through everything is to be present, honest and caring.
“Just being there so they know that they can count on you when they need you helps so much.”
2. Encourage Siblings to Keep Track of Their Questions and Feelings
In our article Preparing Your Child for a Hospital Stay, we suggest giving sick children a little notebook or journal so they can keep track of their questions and concerns as they come up.
Consider gifting the same type of notebook or journal to each sibling. Encourage them to also fill out the journal with their thoughts, feelings and questions. If they want to share, you can talk through their journal entries with them.
3. Schedule One-on-One Time With Each Sibling
There’s no question that much of your time, energy and brainpower must stay focused on your sick child. Yet, you’ll also want to do all you can to remain connected with your other children. One way to do this is to schedule one-on-one time with each child.
It’s not enough to schedule the time, however. You must also honor it. For instance:
- Stay focused. Your one-on-one time is special for each sibling. Keep conversations focused on that sibling and do the things they love to do.
- Be patient. Sometimes siblings may use this time to complain or even act out. Remember, they’re struggling, too. Their acting out may be a sign that they need more attention and love. Give them the room they need to express themselves and just be with them.
- Have fun. It’s okay to laugh and have fun. It may be just what you both need. Encourage silly time and focus on things that bring smiles to your faces.
4. Include Siblings in Hospital Stays
One way to help a sibling feel that they belong is to allow them to help prepare for hospital stays. Depending on their age, let siblings choose a special item to go in the hospital bag or even allow them to handle portions of the packing.
If possible, bring siblings to the hospital to support your sick child and to gain a better understanding of what treatment looks like. Should your sick child’s illness require you to travel far from home, consider traveling together as a family if at all possible.
“Marit had the closest people in her life – her immediate family and nanny – at her side during treatment to love and support her. Not only was their being near Marit good for her; I believed that having her siblings there also potentially benefited them. They were exposed to life beyond our Midwestern suburbia, introduced to culturally diverse people and different lifestyles, and hopefully gained compassion and empathy for people with disabilities.”
5. Seek Out Direct Therapy & Support for Siblings
Check with your hospital to see if they offer group therapy activities or individual therapy options for siblings of sick children. Rely on the resources they provide and those available within your wider community.
- Speak with a child life specialist. These are professional counselors, social workers and therapists who are trained specifically to help children understand illnesses and medical procedures.
- Seek out sibling programs. Some hospitals offer programs geared specifically toward siblings of sick children, such as the sibling program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. See if your hospital has something like this to offer your non-sick children.
- Schedule sessions with a pediatric psychiatrist or licensed clinical social worker. Sometimes, siblings need a neutral ear to listen and help them learn coping strategies and stress management techniques. Find someone they’re comfortable speaking with who knows what it’s like to work with siblings of sick kids.
- Involve your children’s teachers and support professionals. Speak with the siblings’ teachers and school support staff. Let them know what’s going on at home and ask about what is available for the siblings at their schools.
6. Call on Reinforcements to Help at Home
The diagnosis of your child’s serious illness can cause major upheaval at home. One of the most beneficial things you can do for yourself and your family is to build a core care team.
Your care team can help with various day-to-day items, including:
- Homework assistance for siblings
- Transportation to siblings’ events and appointments
- One-on-one quality time with each child
- Meal planning and preparation
- House cleaning, yard work and upkeep
Truly, your core team is there to support you however you need it. Build a team, lean on those who are there and communicate often about your needs.
“I am a single mom and I am not a person who wants to ask for help, but I had to when my 11 year old daughter was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2019. She has a twin sister who had to keep going to school and had to be taken care of. My wonderful friends and my sister, without hesitation, volunteered to help the 3 of us.”
And if you want help building a team, consider starting a free CaringBridge site. CaringBridge can help you keep everyone updated on your child’s health and our free Planner lets you easily coordinate care needs like meal planning and carpool.
7. Support the Siblings’ Relationship
All the attention that a sick child receives can cause a growth in resentment and rivalry on the part of siblings. This is only made worse when children are kept apart due to lengthy hospital stays and other illness-related activities.
Help your children maintain their bonds and support one another by seeking out ways to keep them engaged. For instance:
- Find joint activities for your children to do together. From group craft activities to family movie nights where the kids get to pick out what to watch, it’s important to build in group activities that include all of your children. This is one area where your extended support network could provide ideas and help make them happen.
- Send your children to camps for sick kids and their siblings. These offer a burst of fun and a break from what has become the new norm for your family. Here is a list of camps for families dealing with childhood cancer.
- Remind relatives and friends to support all children. Sick children often get showered with gifts to help them take their minds off what’s happening. Siblings don’t always get the same treatment. So, whenever gifts are involved, ask that all children receive something special.
8. Remember to Take Care of Yourself
It’s no secret that parents and caregivers will put themselves last in favor of caring for their children. As difficult as it may seem, your needs must be prioritized too.
Here are a few tips to help you take care of yourself:
- Get enough sleep and proper nutrition
- Find time (even just a few minutes) for exercise, whether it be a walk or a quick yoga session
- Talk to your support network of close family or friends
What Tips for Sibling Care Can You Share?
We welcome your thoughts, insights and personal stories in the comments below. What you share may be just what one parent needs to hear.