Serious health conditions affect the entire family. When a child is sick, here’s how to help brother and sister cope.
I still remember the day I met Jason.
His sister, Sarah, had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy soon followed. Jason and Sarah’s mom spent her days and nights at the hospital. Sarah got presents in the mail and visitors from far away. Everyone asked Jason how Sarah was doing.
In the exam room, Jason and Sarah’s mom said she felt like her family was falling apart. We talked for a while about Sarah’s diagnosis and Jason’s emotions.
Then Jason spoke up: “I wish I was sick, too.” He missed having his mom around, but he was also afraid Sarah wouldn’t get better.
Many families dealing with an illness that affects a child’s entire life have similar stories.
These kinds of illnesses affect the entire family, especially siblings. They may feel frustrated, sad or angry. They can feel left out, wish to be sick, too, or even think they somehow caused the illness.
Here are some ways to help siblings of a child with a serious health condition cope.
Visit the hospital
When a child is born with or diagnosed with a serious health condition, visits to the hospital and overnight stays will follow. Siblings should visit their brother or sister in the hospital to see the care firsthand. This can open doors to talk about their sibling’s condition or what the siblings are feeling inside. The hospital can be an overwhelming place for children, so preparing them for the experience is important.
If the brother or sister’s serious health condition changed rapidly, it may be appropriate to schedule a visit with a hospital child life specialist.
Play and educate
Playing doctor at home and talking about a child’s serious health condition helps the child understand and cope with the illness. This can also encourage siblings to learn, express and play through their feelings as well. Reading books about the sibling’s illness, expressing emotions during activities and playing doctor are all ways to cope with the illness as a family.
Help siblings stay connected
Encourage siblings to stay in touch with photos, cards, phone calls or video chat when they can’t be at the hospital. Brothers and sisters can help choose their siblings’ favorite toys or outfits to send to the hospital; this includes them and gives them a sense of control.
Plan a special day just for them
When a child is admitted to the hospital, the stress of the illness can be overwhelming for parents and others caring for the child. It may be difficult to focus on other needs at home. If possible, find time to do a special activity with your at-home children or plan a daily phone call while you’re at the hospital.
Katie Beard is a certified child life specialist with Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt‘s outpatient Hematology/Oncology clinic. She enjoys baking, writing and spending time with her nieces and nephew. Katie learned of the career of child life during her undergraduate studies at The University of Alabama and believes the field is an important part of hospital care.
Family-Centered Care is essential to the mission of Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, which strives to support families during their hospital visits. The Family Resource Center can connect patients and their families with valuable resources, and the Child Life Department can offer support if your child’s siblings are not coping well.