Aunt Blabby is both imaginary and very real.
She answers questions from siblings of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia patients with complex chronic conditions, helping the healthy sister or brother deal with the realities of their family life, where, understandably, the ill child usually gets the lion’s share of attention from parents.
“Dear Aunt Blabby” is a favorite part of Sibshops, special meetings six times a year just for healthy siblings ages 6 to 13. The kids chime in with advice to help Aunt Blabby answer questions like, “What should I do if I feel frustrated when my sibling gets special gifts just because she’s sick?” Or “What do you do when kids in school make fun of your sibling who has a disability?”
Been there, felt that
The first question addresses a situation Katelyn, 13, faces since she has two younger sisters who are “frequent fliers” and often return from hospitalizations with toys and other goodies.
When the second question came up, Abby, 13, who’s been a Sibshop regular for eight years, had an answer. “Tell an adult who is not a stranger,” advised Abby, whose twin, Madeline, has cystic fibrosis. “You can talk to a guidance counselor, principal or your parents to make them aware.”
Katelyn, now 13, with the totem pole she made at Sibshops that represents the kinship she feels with other attendees
Sibshops, facilitated by CHOP child life specialists and social workers, help Katelyn, Abby and other kids handle the stress and frustrations they feel by teaching them concrete coping tools and by being a safe place to express their emotions. A parents’ support group meets at the same time. CHOP also offers Sibology, a sibling group for Cancer Center patients’ brothers and sisters.
Each Sibshops session has a theme — such as friendship, feelings, self-esteem, bullying — and plenty of activities and discussions that encourage kids to open up.
They might make a “feelings soup” where children suggest the emotional “ingredients” that make up their experience: a heap of love, a tablespoon of patience, a pinch of jealousy, a dash of worry. They have created self-portraits highlighting not only their physical appearance, but also the internal qualities that make them unique.
“Some activities are simply fun and others have a therapeutic aspect: digging into how the kids relate to and feel about being a sibling of a child with a chronic condition,” says facilitator Andrea McGinnis, CCLS. “They talk about the hard stuff. I’m amazed by how profound they can be.”
“I enjoy making crafts and taking them home so that I can continue to build on skills we learned at Sibshops,” says Katelyn. “My favorite craft was the emoji feelings chart that still hangs on our refrigerator.”
Abby’s mother, Eileen Wiencek, has seen her daughter gain a vocabulary to talk about her feelings, leading to meaningful discussions. “It’s helped Abby not be so resentful and be more understanding,” Eileen says. “I praise it and recommend it to any family with an ill child who has a sibling.”
Sibshops participants show off their self-portraits.
While the kids are occupied, parents do their own sharing. Some of their children have chronic, life-shortening conditions while others have developmental delays, emotional problems or physical disabilities — yet the parents find common ground and help each other. They share resources and tips on dealing with schools, navigating the healthcare system and coping with the stress illness puts on their families.
“We communicate our struggles and share our successes,” says Katelyn’s mom, Sandy Anderson. “There’s a wonderful camaraderie that comes with knowing that we’re not in this alone.”
The most valuable part of Sibshops and the parents’ group may be that, for one morning every other month, attendees are with other kids and parents who “get it.” They don’t have to explain why they are sad or mad, frustrated or fed up. Nor do they need to apologize for being happy and cracking jokes.
The time is all about them; they are the focus. They can just be themselves. And that is something Aunt Blabby would definitely encourage.
SIBSHOPS: Meets 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on six Saturdays a year on Main Campus. Groups for siblings 6 to 9 years old and 10 to 13. Concurrent parent session. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
SIBOLOGY: Meets four times a year in the Buerger Center for Advanced Pediatric Care, located on the Raymond G. Perelman Campus. For kids ages 7 to 12 who have sibling currently on treatment or just off treatment. Concurrent parent group. For information, email email@example.com.