When a Child's Sibling is Sick
A brother or sister's illness can be traumatic for kids. Follow our advice to help your children get through it.
They play together, tell each other secrets, and maybe even share a room. The bond between siblings, even when they're at each other's throats, is undeniable. So, when one child has a chronic illness or a devastating health issue, it can be extremely difficult for the brother or sister. As the parent, you're already going through a tough time dealing with your feelings and tending to your ill child. These tips will make it easier to help your healthy children cope when a sibling is sick.
Offer an ExplanationDon't try to keep your child's illness a secret. Kids will notice something is going on with their siblings, and if you don't tell them, they'll imagine possibilities on their own, some of which will induce stress. When you talk to your child, keep the discussion simple, straightforward, and age appropriate. Limit information to the basics, addressing what's most relevant to the child: what the ill sibling is experiencing now and how that may change in the future; how this may or may not affect the healthy child and others close to the sick child; and how the family will come together to support the him, says Marla W. Deibler, Psy.D., a psychologist and executive director of the Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, LLC. For example, if your child has epilepsy, you could say, "Your brother has a sickness that causes his brain to misbehave sometimes. When that happens, he may fall to the floor and start to shake. He has to take medication so it doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's very scary. We have to make some changes, like being careful when watching TV because flashing lights can cause your brother to get sick."
Answer QuestionsYour child will likely have quite a few questions. Some, such as "Will my brother die?" "Am I going to get sick too?" or "Why did it happen?" are difficult to answer. "It's okay to let a child know we sometimes don't know why people get sick and sometimes we cannot make a sickness go away, even though we try," Dr. Deibler says. Assure your child that he can't "catch" his brother's illness and you will do all you can to keep him healthy. Tell him you're available anytime he has questions or needs to talk.
Let Your Children HelpIf they're interested, it can be beneficial to include siblings in the treatment. For example, allowing the child to go to some of the doctor's visits can help him understand the illness better. Reading to his brother or keeping a journal to update the brother while he's in the hospital can help him feel like he's doing his part to help his sibling.
Just be careful not to make the mistake of forcing a caregiver role on the child. Don't give your child too many responsibilities or make him do tasks that are beyond his maturity level.
Help Extinguish GuiltYour child may be jealous because of the attention his sister receives, he may sometimes wish she would die so things can be "normal," or he may think about the fights he had with his sister before her illness. All of these things can cause guilt, which can be difficult for children to handle, says Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., clinical director of Westchester Group Works, in Harrison, New York. She recommends explaining that there are episodes of jealousy, anger and intense feelings in all sibling relationships. You could even share some of those you've experienced with your own siblings. Make sure to include a few funny ones to help ease the stress. Remind him that arguing with his sister doesn't mean he caused her illness.
Clear Your CalendarTo help prevent or reduce feelings of resentment from your healthy child, make sure you meet his needs, Dr. Maidenberg says. Schedule one-on-one time with each of your children and be sure to acknowledge them and their efforts on a daily basis. If you're unable to spend as much time as you'd like with your child, get help from family and friends.
Keep Things "Normal"
Routines are comforting for kids because it makes it easy for them to determine what happens next. Do your best to stick to the usual mealtimes, bedtimes, and other activities. Maintain consistency with rules and consequences. Kids sometimes lash out or become disobedient because of the stress or anger associated with having an ill sibling (or even being sick themselves). That's normal. It's okay to overlook small, occasional misbehaviors, but you don't want things to get too out of hand.
Relieve StressTaking care of an ill child can be a tiresome and stressful job for a parent. Make it a point to relax sometimes. Have a friend come over and watch the kids while you go out to see a funny movie or get a pedicure. Time away can recharge your batteries and help you do a better job when you return to your caregiving duties. Your kids also need time off: Let them enjoy a night out with friends, arrange for a family visit to the skating rink, or plan for a night of popcorn and silly games. Having fun and taking the focus off the illness will help reduce your kids' stress. If your child's medical issues allow, be sure to include him in the excitement.
Know When to Seek HelpIt's normal for kids to be sad, scared, confused, and angry, but Dr. Deibler says the following behavioral signs in children are red flags: worry that is difficult to control, preoccupation with sickness, feeling keyed up or on edge, inability to enjoy things the child typically does, changes in sleep or eating habits, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, and any other significant changes. If you see any of these symptoms in your child, he may need help from a professional to cope with the sibling's sickness.
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