Sister and brother hugging When your child has a medical condition, it’s clear that special attention is needed to help that child through treatments, hospitalizations, and the emotions that can come with a serious health problem. But what about your other children — the healthy siblings who may worry about their brother or sister and miss you when you can’t be home?

Children can have strong feelings when a siblings is ill

“It's important for parents to realize that brothers and sisters need as much attention and support as the child with an illness, and sometimes even more,” says Katie Price, a certified child life specialist with the Cardiac Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). “In the same way you feel intense emotions when a child is ill, children feel a range of strong feelings in response to a sibling’s health problems. They need your attention and support to get through what can be a stressful time for the whole family.”

When a child is hospitalized or requires ongoing medical care, siblings may feel jealous, guilty, fearful, angry, sad or confused. And different siblings may have very different emotional responses. Even when these feelings are not voiced, they can be expressed in behavior. You may notice well siblings acting out, clinging to you, withdrawing, regressing to habits of a younger age, or having difficulty sleeping.

These are very normal childhood reactions to a serious health problem in the family. And they are a sign that your children need your love and support now more than ever. Even though you are probably worried yourself and may feel pulled in many directions, it’s important to listen and validate these feelings without judgment.

How to help all of your children find strength and resilience

  • Praise all siblings and recognize each child’s unique qualities and family contributions.
  • Share some of your own feelings or concerns when appropriate and let your children know it’s OK to feel that way.
  • Recognize that even negative feelings, such as anger or jealousy, are real. Make it clear that you hear those feelings when a child expresses them. Don’t criticize a child for having emotions that are less than angelic. Help your children identify positive outlets for strong feelings.
  • Spend time alone with each of your children. That might be a walk, a scooter outing or a movie night. You might ask each child to make a list of ways they would like to spend one-on-one time with you, then find time for an item on the list every few days.
  • Ask for and accept help from friends and family members. Use that help to make yourself available for one-on-one time and important activities in each of your children’s lives — plays and recitals, sports events, time volunteering in a child’s classroom or simply make-believe play with a young child.
  • Limit the caregiving responsibilities of older siblings. Avoid making older children regularly carry the burden of being a parent to younger siblings when you can’t be there.
  • Make it clear to your children that no one is to blame for their sibling’s illness. Young children in particular can silently take on a sense of blame when bad things happen, and they need to know they are not at fault.
  • Seek out other families that have a child with similar health needs and give your children a chance to meet and play with kids who are going through a similar sibling experience. Your care team may be able to help you make those connections.
  • Talk with school counselors about what is going on in your family, or see a therapist to help your young child find ways to cope with strong emotions.

Help siblings feel involved and connected

Children can feel left out of a sibling’s care, especially during hospitalizations. Look for how to involve your children in ways that help them feel needed and connected. That could be through regular Facetime calls or text messaging or by making artwork to decorate the hospital room.

Hospital visits can be helpful, as allowed and appropriate. Prepare your children for what they will see, using honest, age-appropriate language. Help young children prepare a bag of quiet activities for themselves to help pass the time.

The hospital’s child life specialists can help make visits from young siblings a positive and therapeutic experiences. Be sure to ask for their guidance before a visit, and find out if a specialist can be available to spend time with your visiting child.

Contributed by: Katie Price
Date: October 2018