Families with a seriously ill child face many difficulties, and one area of life that can get overlooked is the care of well siblings. Parents are often so overwhelmed and focused on helping the ill child or teen that well siblings’ needs get pushed aside. There can be long-term negative repercussions to ignoring these other children, so it is important for parents, caregivers, and family members to tune in to well siblings’ needs. Acknowledging and meeting these needs can also help parents stay grounded during the emotional roller coaster of caring for a sick child.
From leading siblings support groups for many years, I know that well siblings can suffer a whole spectrum of emotions, from guilt that they are healthy and their sibling is not, to resentment or anger that their sibling is getting all the attention and resources. Family life, routines, and outlooks are all disrupted which can upset well siblings and their ability to cope. Uncertainty about their ill sibling’s health outcome can spill over into uncertainty about life and the future in general. Maintaining routines and as normal family functioning as possible, including rules, can help, along with supporting well siblings as much as possible. Also, keeping well children connected to their ill sibling through visits, calls, emails, texts, and cards is important so no one feels neglected.
Some signs of stress that parents, friends, teachers, and other family members can look for in well siblings include changes in behavior, appetite, sleeping habits, school performance, and mood. Some children may regress or act out, and become more stressed because the parents are stressed. Including well children in the care of the sick child and keeping them informed, in age-appropriate ways, helps well children cope and keeps it “real.” If they are kept in the dark, children’s minds can run rampant with uncertainty, fear, and worry.
Here’s a shortlist for parents and supportive adults:
- Communicate – Encourage well children to talk about their feelings, both positive and negative, and/or express themselves through their chosen activity, whether writing, drawing, playing, dancing, singing, or exercising in order to process all the emotions. Listen to them with compassion and love, and be present with them, even if it’s only for a brief time. Express your own feelings, without being overwhelming, so they feel comfortable doing the same.
- Support — Let children know you are there for them even if it seems like you’re not when you are often away at doctors’ offices or the hospital. Stay connected any way you can via hugs and kisses, and visual or regular phone calls, texts, or emails when you can’t do it in person or when the healthy child can’t come with you. Arrange for additional support from and alert schoolteachers, counselors, psychologists, family members, and friends. Tap your “village” to help keep an eye on and talk to well siblings.
- Accept help — Ask for and accept any help you can get from trusted contacts, for grocery shopping, cooking meals, arranging playdates, and driving well children to and from after-school activities. Consider older local children and teens to be mother’s helpers for household tasks such as laundry and cleaning. Again, tap your “village” and expand your definition of community. People want to help, really!
- Include Siblings – Give well siblings simple tasks such as making cards, taking pictures, or making short videos to bring to the sick sibling, both as a way to keep the ill child feeling connected and less isolated, and for the well kids to feel like they are doing something to help. Bring well children on some doctor and hospital visits so the illness is less mysterious and so they can relate to what their sibling is facing. Share information and “keep it real,” as kids will sense if you are withholding or sugarcoating difficult news. We all crave authenticity, especially in times of crisis—kids are no different.
- Take a Break – It’s OK to enjoy some down time, so parents and siblings are not focused on the sick child’s illness 100% of the time. Try to find some semblance of normalcy amidst the chaos. Arrange a fun family activity, however brief, such as a movie, board game, sports scrimmage, joke-telling session, outing, etc., to give everyone’s mind a break and maintain everyone’s mental health.
See these helpful tips for parents on the Kids Health website, which has additional tabs for kids and teens. Also, here is a wonderful list of rights that well children deserve. Finally, the Sibling Support Project website is a resource for well siblings.