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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. The patient’s siblings need to know that you understand their feelings and that you still love them. The behavior changes you notice usually do not last forever. They often get better 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 that caused the illness,
  • Worrying that they can 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 talk with you about other questions or fears that come up.

Learning about the hospital

If your sick child’s siblings spend little or no time at the hospital, they might imagine something different than 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 the patient’s siblings are too far away to 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 to your child to explain the patient’s illness.

Sharing feelings

Talking about thoughts and questions with someone a child trusts can really help. The person can be a friend, family member, teacher or 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.