Child Life, Education and Creative Arts Therapy

Siblings: Why Is It Important (and Necessary) to Address Their Needs?

A child's illness or disability profoundly affects not only the child but also the entire family. Siblings must adjust to family members and caregivers spending large amounts of time, money, attention and psychological support on their brother or sister. It is often difficult for brothers and sisters to adapt to this new lifestyle and their adjustment can affect the overall development of the sibling relationship and self-esteem in both children.

Illness can change the relationship between siblings

This relationship is perhaps one of the most important in a child's life because it is often the first and longest lasting social network he or she will encounter. Brothers and sisters begin as playmates and throughout their relationship take on different roles in each other's lives. They may be many things to each other — teacher, friend, companion, follower, protector, enemy, competitor, confidant and role model. A brother or sister's illness or disability, however, may alter some of these roles, creating additional stress for parents and caregivers.

Helping siblings adjust

To effectively help siblings adjust to having a brother or sister with an illness or disability, parents and caregivers should consider the developmental reactions that siblings will have throughout their lives. They most likely will encounter many new and unfamiliar experiences that will require age-appropriate explanations. At any given age, siblings should receive as much information as they feel they need to understand their brother or sister's health needs. Siblings should be prepared for medical procedures and hospitalization, included in play and medical play activities, and given strategies for coping just like their brother or sister.

Including siblings in the hospitalization experience

When a brother or sister must be admitted to the hospital, there are many different activities siblings can do to feel more involved with the healthcare experience. It is away from the healthcare setting however, that parents and caregivers feel they need the most help with fostering positive sibling relationships among the well children and those with an illness or disability. Nevertheless, they should not feel that the responsibility to address these issues is solely theirs. Child life specialists, nurses, social workers and other professionals can provide suggestions for parents and caregivers as well as helpful resources on how to effectively maintain a healthy balance between a child with an illness or disability and his or her brothers and sisters.

Information taken from:
The National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities' News Digest #11: Children with Disabilities: Understanding Sibling Issues.

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This resource about supporting brothers and sisters of hospitalized children was written by CHOP Child Life specialists.
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