Together is a new resource for anyone affected by pediatric cancer - patients and their parents, family members, and friends.Learn More
When your child or teen is severely ill (sick), it affects the whole family. The patient's siblings can face many challenges. Siblings might be away from the patient and their parents for a long time. The family might visit an unfamiliar hospital, and their daily routine could change.
When facing these challenges, siblings may act differently than normal. They might:
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 changes in their behavior will not last forever. They will often get better or go away as your family adjusts to a new routine.
Siblings often have questions and fears, but they may not talk about them unless you ask. These can include:
Every sibling may feel and experience things differently. It may help if they can share their questions and feelings with a child life specialist, psychologist, or another person they trust.
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. If you need help finding the right words or need advice about how much you should share, ask your care team for help.
Many times, you should let the child lead the conversation. Start by asking your children if they have any of fears or questions. They might want to talk to about how frustrating it is to have a sick brother or sister. It is healthy for siblings to share feelings. Listen to your child without judging them. Let them know it is OK to have those feelings and concerns.
Do not feel like you have to have an answer. It is okay to say, that is something I have been wondering about, too; what are you thinking about that? Answer as honestly as you can with simple words they can understand. Being honest builds trust. When you are honest, your children might bring other questions or fears to you later.
It helps if your child can talk about their thoughts and questions with someone they trust. The person can be a friend, family member, teacher, school counselor, or a member of your religious community. Health providers like child life specialists can also help.
When things are hard to talk about, your children might want to write down their thoughts and feelings or find other positive ways to express them. They can use social network platforms to keep in touch.
Some children and teens can express their feelings better by doing art, music, or some other hobby they enjoy. You can ask a child life specialist, social worker, or other care provider for help and ideas.
Some siblings may also enjoy spending time with other siblings with whom they can relate. Ask your care team if the hospital offers sibling groups or activities.
Children learn how to act by watching the people around them. At stressful times, they often copy what parents or caregivers doing. The actions of parents and caregivers will affect:
Remember that siblings need just as much attention and support as the patient, and sometimes they need a little extra. Some other helpful tips are:
If siblings do not spend time at the hospital, they might imagine something different about what your sick child’s experience there. If possible, arrange for them to visit at least once. Health care providers can meet with siblings and tell them about what happens.
If siblings cannot visit the hospital, providers can help you talk about what happens there. For example, they can give you things to take home such as books, photos, or dolls to explain medical treatments. They can send letters that explain your sick child’s illness.
Your sick child or teen may take part in playroom activities and special events at the hospital. If their siblings are present at the hospital, they can join in and feel like they are part of what is happening.
Siblings of Childhood Cancer Patients
How to Help Children and Teens When Sibling Finishes Cancer Treatment
SuperSibs, a program of Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, offers services, information, camps, and parent toolkits
Reviewed: September 2022