Having a child with a cardiac diagnosis can be extremely stressful for families. Emotions felt by family members may be shared by all or could be unique to each family member and their identity within the family. Caregivers play an important role in helping siblings cope with the hospitalization and ongoing treatment or illness of their brother or sister. It's important for parents to realize brothers and sisters need as much attention and support as the child with an illness, and sometimes even more.
Some feelings commonly experienced by siblings when their brother or sister is hospitalized or requires ongoing treatment are jealousy, guilt, fear, anger, sadness and confusion. As a result of these feelings, siblings may experience changes in their behavior. Parents may notice siblings having difficulty sleeping, acting out, clinging to parents, withdrawing from family and regressing to habits of an earlier age (such as wanting to sleep with parents, wetting the bed, thumb-sucking). These are very normal reactions and the Child Life team at the Cardiac Center is here to help! We specialize in helping children and teenagers and their families cope with hospitalization.
How caregivers can support siblings’ needs
Research shows siblings benefit from age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate, honest and accurate information, and an environment that allows them to openly express their feelings. It’s important to listen and validate these feelings without judgment.
Some ways caregivers can support the coping needs of brothers and sisters are:
- Spend time alone with siblings (e.g. a mother-daughter walk or night out at the movies).
- Limit the caregiving responsibilities of siblings.
- Take advantage of help from friends and family members, especially to be available for important activities in siblings’ lives (e.g. school play, sports game).
- Emphasize that no one is to blame for the sibling’s illness.
- Attempt to meet other families who have a child with similar health needs and give siblings a chance to meet and interact with other children who share the same experiences (Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information).
- Let siblings settle their own differences as much as possible.
- Praise all siblings and recognize each child's unique qualities and family contributions.
- Help siblings identify a positive outlet for strong feelings.
- Share some of your own feelings or concerns when it is appropriate and let them know it’s OK to feel that way.
- Let siblings know how they can explain their sibling’s health needs to their peers if needed.
- Collaborate with school counselors or see a play therapist to support coping.
Caregivers can help siblings feel more involved with the care of their hospitalized brother or sister by connecting the hospital and home. This could mean letting siblings facetime, call or text each other, encouraging siblings to create artwork or cards to decorate patient’s room, sending the patient’s favorite things as chosen by siblings to hospital, and choosing activities siblings can do together.
When a child is admitted to the hospital, siblings should be allowed to visit whenever possible and appropriate. Prepare siblings for what they will see and hear when they arrive, using honest, age-appropriate words. If the brother or sister is very ill, injured and/or not feeling well, suggest siblings pack a bag of things to do quietly while they are at the hospital, and ask your Child Life Specialist for help with preparing and supporting siblings.