How siblings react to having a sick brother or sister
When your child or teenager is seriously ill, it affects the whole family. This includes the patient’s siblings (brothers and sisters). Siblings of a St. Jude patient can face many challenges. These include long separations from the patient or a parent, visits to an unfamiliar hospital, and changes in routines.
These challenges can make siblings act differently than normal. For example, they might:
- Act jealous of the patient,
- Cling to you or follow you around,
- Demand more attention than usual, or
- Show less interest in normal activities.
Every child reacts to stress in a different way. Your sick child’s siblings need to know that you understand their feelings and that you still love them. The behavioral changes you notice usually do not last forever. They often get better or go away as your family creates a new routine.
Sibling questions and fears
Siblings often have questions and fears, but they might not talk about them unless you ask. These can include:
- Not understanding what is wrong with the patient or why the patient cannot come home;
- Wondering if they or the patient did something wrong to cause the illness;
- Worrying that they might catch the illness; and
- Wondering who will take care of them if you or another caregiver are at the hospital.
Ask your children if they have any of these fears or questions. Answer as honestly as you can, and use simple words they can understand. If you need help finding the right words, you can ask a St. Jude child life specialist for help.
Being honest with children helps them trust you. It also makes it more likely that they will tell you about other questions or fears that come up.
Learning about the hospital
If siblings spend little or no time at the hospital, they might imagine something different from what is really happening to the patient. It might help for them to visit the hospital at least once. Child life specialists can meet with siblings to prepare them for some of the new things they will see.
If your sick child’s siblings cannot visit St. Jude, child life specialists can help you share what happens at the hospital. For example, they can give you materials to send home, such as books, photos, or dolls to help explain medical treatments. They can also send letters that explain the patient’s illness.
Talking about thoughts and questions with someone a child trusts can really help. The person can be a friend, family member, teacher, school counselor, or a member of your church. It can also be a St. Jude staff person such as a child life specialist.
When things are hard to talk about, your children might want to write about their thoughts and feelings. Drawing pictures can also help. The siblings of St. Jude patients have told child life specialists that writing down some of their private thoughts helps to get emotions out.
Here are some examples of the types of emotions siblings may express.
FEAR – It can be scary for siblings not knowing what is going on with the patient. They might be scared about what could happen to their brother or sister.
GUILT – Siblings need to know they did not do anything to make their brother or sister sick.
SADNESS – Many brothers and sisters of St. Jude patients feel sad when they think about the changes in their families. They need to know that sadness is normal.
WORRY – Many siblings feel nervous for their sick brother or sister. It can help to share worries with a child life specialist at St. Jude. The child life specialist can help explain the illness and treatment.
LEFT OUT – Many siblings are overwhelmed by everything the patient needs. They might feel that things in their lives are not as important as they used to be. It is important for siblings to keep sharing important moments with their families. This is true even if parents or other caregivers seem busy.
ANGER or JEALOUSY – When the patient gets so much attention, siblings can feel angry or jealous. They need to know it is OK to have these feelings. They also need to remember that their family still cares for them very much.
Every sibling of a St. Jude patient has a different experience. At St. Jude, we encourage siblings to share questions and feelings with a child life specialist or another trusted person.
Including siblings in what happens at the hospital
When your child or teen is at St. Jude, there are many chances for him to take part in playroom activities and special events. If siblings of patients are present, they can join in and feel a part of what is happening with their brother or sister.
It is easier for some families to include siblings in what happens at the hospital if the siblings are at St. Jude. When they are not, parents or caregivers might need help keeping the sick child and siblings in touch with each other. St. Jude can help your sick child stay close to his brothers and sisters, even if they are far away. Child life specialists, nurses, social workers, and other staff can share resources to help families stay close.
Helpful reminders for parents and other caregivers
At stressful times, children often do what they see parents or caregivers doing. This is because children learn how to act by watching the people around them. How parents and caregivers act affects how siblings will act around the patient. It can also affect how children relate to each other.
Remember that siblings need just as much attention and support as the patient. Now and then, a brother or sister might need extra attention or support.
Talking to your sick child’s siblings about illness
Your sick child’s brothers or sisters need information about their sibling’s illness and treatment. The information should be correct and fit the child’s age.
When you talk to your sick child’s siblings, be open and honest. From time to time, a sibling might want to talk to someone about how frustrating it is to have a sick brother or sister. You should know that it is healthy for siblings to share feelings. Listen to your child without judging him. Let him know it is OK to have those feelings and concerns.
Ways to support siblings
- Tell them about the patient’s illness honestly, using words they understand.
- If possible, arrange for them to visit the hospital.
- Let siblings know who will take care of them while you are gone.
- Answer questions simply and honestly.
- Ask how they are feeling, listen to their feelings, and tell them it is OK to have these feelings.
- Encourage siblings to express their feelings in positive ways. Look at “Do You Know … How Patients React to Hospital Care.” The ideas to help patients express their feelings can help siblings, too.
- Let siblings know what you and the patient are doing at St. Jude by sending letters, photos, and videos home; using email or a social network like Facebook; or talking on the phone or on a video chat service like FaceTime, Skype, or Gmail.
- Talk to siblings’ schoolteachers or counselors so they know what your sick child’s siblings are going through.
- When you are with each sibling, plan times for just the two of you to do something special. This can be reading a story, playing a game, or going on a short outing without the patient.
If you have questions about how patients and siblings react to hospital care, please call the Child Life department. If you are inside the hospital, dial 3020. Locally, call 901-595-3020. If you are outside the Memphis area, dial toll-free 1-866-2STJUDE (1-866-278-5833), extension 3020.
This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.
St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.
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