10 Ways to Help Siblings of Cancer Patients

10 Ways to Help Siblings of Cancer Patients

Cancer has a profound effect on the entire family, especially when it’s a child whose been diagnosed.  While everyone is understandably focused on the care of the ill child, it’s natural for siblings to feel anxious, neglected, scared and even resentful at times.  MD Anderson‘s website offers great advice via podcast on how to tell children that sibling has cancer.  Click HERE to listen to it.

The article below was posted on The Primary Children’s Hospital of Salt Lake City, Utah. It offers good suggestions for helping siblings not get lost in shuffle so I am re-posting it here on CancerHawk.  For more insight into this topic as well as other children’s issues, check out the Primary Children’s Hospital blog “Play Ground“, it’s packed with lots of helpful information.

“A cancer diagnosis in a child affects the entire family. Out of necessity, the sick child gets more attention from parents and often receives special treatment or gifts. The sick child’s siblings are very aware of this shift in the family dynamic and are impacted by the emotional turmoil.

Young children may regress in their behavioral development, potty training, and sleeping habits. Older kids may experience feelings of jealously and resentment toward their sibling, or feel a sense of guilt for being well. They may even feel that their sibling’s illness is somehow their fault. Siblings of cancer patients may also feel pressure to take on added responsibilities in an attempt to reduce the stress that the cancer has placed on the family. In many cases, worries become internalized and causes siblings to feel isolated from their peers. These children often have a hard time concentrating in school.

Primary Children’s cancer team understands the ripple effects that cancer has on families. Our Social Workers and Child Life Specialists can provide parents with information that will help them have productive discussions that can benefit the whole family.

As an important part of a family’s treatment plan, parents may also consider a “Sibling Session.” Sibling Sessions provide all members of the family with the opportunity to discuss difficult emotions and family changes. The sessions allow children to openly communicate their feelings about having a brother or sister with a life-threatening disease. By freely sharing their fears and concerns with others, the siblings of cancer patients can more effectively work through their emotions and can increase acceptance of the new family dynamic—and possibly prevent future problems. It can also help to clear up any misconceptions about the illness with age-appropriate teaching.

One key issue centers on communication between well siblings and the child with cancer. Well siblings should be encouraged to maintain communication with the sick sibling, but should be given the choice whether or not to visit the hospital. If the well children want to visit, prepare them beforehand about the state of the sick child and what they will see at the hospital. Use words they understand, but use correct terms like cancer, leukemia, and chemotherapy. Using the proper words makes the situation less scary. If a well sibling does not want to visit, don’t push it. However, you should encourage some form of communication, such as letters, text messages, or using Facetime/Skype.

Other Ways Parents Can Support Siblings of Cancer Patients:

  1. Be open and honest with them about the seriousness of the situation.
  2. Give them permission to express feelings of guilt, jealously, anger, sadness, fear, and love—and validate these feelings.
  3. Spend as much time with the well children as possible—by phone, at the hospital, or in extra one-on-one time at home.
  4. Continue daily routines as much as possible. Maintain the same boundaries and same rules for both the sick and well children. Continue to talk with well children about what’s going on in their lives, including everyday things.
  5. Reassure them that just because their sibling is sick, they won’t become sick as well. And, assure them that this is not their fault and they did nothing to cause the illness.
  6. Keep school teachers informed about the situation so that they will be sensitive about the well children’s feelings and concerns.
  7. Stress the healthy aspects of the sick child, such as his/her sense of humor, interests, and talents.
  8. Be careful not to burden well children with extra duties and thank them for their help.
  9. Give well children permission not to talk just about their sick sibling with others. They may be getting asked a lot about their sibling and this gives them permission to talk about themselves and their accomplishments as well.
  10. Ask friends who want to give the sick child a gift to make it a family present so all siblings will reap the benefits of a caring family and community.”

Do you have any suggestions to help siblings of a cancer patient? If so, please share them with us.  

Read more about the wide variety of available cancer support services.

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