Parents: How to support youth who have a sibling with a medical illness

When any child faces illness or hospitalization, the entire family is impacted, including the siblings. During this time, the focus for parents is typically on the sick child; unfortunately, this means that the challenges and needs of siblings often go unrecognized and as a result, siblings do not receive the attention or support they need. It’s very common for siblings of every age to face numerous challenges, feelings, and reactions in response to their brother or sister’s illness. 

When a child becomes ill, youth siblings may be confronted with changes to their typical routines, are often separated from family members, may receive less attention from caregivers, have difficulty relating to their peers, and may have fears or misconceptions in relation to their sibling’s condition. These challenges can lead to siblings experiencing feelings of anger, jealousy, worry, anxiety, and guilt. In response, siblings may become more withdrawn and engage less with others, have increased outbursts, and face challenges at school. 

School-aged siblings (6-13 years old) commonly worry about their sick sibling and losing them, they may become resentful because of the changes in their routines and life, and jealous of the attention their sibling is receiving. The sibling may feel embarrassed, confused, and guilty; they may also become withdrawn, clingy and uncooperative.

Here are 5 tips to help you support your school-aged child(ren):

  1. Involve them in the healthcare journey as much as possible, and only if they want to be.
  2. Give them control and choice whenever and wherever possible while continuing to discipline appropriately.
  3. Encourage questions and give explanations.
  4. Maintain routines when possible.
  5. Ensure you are spending quality alone time with them.
  6. Always acknowledge and support their feelings.

Adolescent siblings (13-18 years old) are typically aware and concerned about the additional stress on their family and are impacted by the separation from family members and peers. Youth in this age range may fear the loss or change to their identity as they begin taking on more responsibility and their role within their family changes. They may also become insecure as they’re feeling different from their peers. Adolescents’ reactions may vary between wanting to be protective and caring, to being uncooperative, withdrawn, anxious, depressed, angry, frustrated and even resentful. 

Here are 5 tips to help you support your adolescent child(ren):

  1. Listen to their concerns and answer any questions they have, honestly.
  2. Provide ongoing information and preparation about their sibling’s healthcare journey.
  3. Involve them in the healthcare journey as much as possible, and only if they want to be.
  4. Encourage peer interactions and relationships.
  5. Respect and encourage appropriate self-expression and independence.

Remember that it is normal for siblings to react, withdraw or act out, and even regress in response to their brother or sister’s illness. While there are many components of the illness and resulting impacts that are out of your control, there are ways you can help support your children through the challenges and journey your family is facing.

Finding strength in a community and support from others navigating similar experiences can also be extremely helpful for youth who have a brother or sister with an illness. Read about our new Sibling Island and how your child might benefit, here.

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