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Siblings of Children with Serious Illnesses

Typical Feelings for Siblings of a Sick Child: Wanting to be Normal

Most children just want things to go back to normal. Parents should make every effort to keep siblings on their regular schedules for school, mealtimes, bedtimes, and extra-curricular activities.

Parents will need to rely on trusted family members and friends to ensure that this happens. Palliative care social workers note that sometimes families want to keep their child's condition to themselves and not ask for help. This is nearly impossible -- and could be detrimental to the well-being of the other children.

When children must be taken out of their normal comfort zones -- for hospital visits or perhaps for serious talks about the circumstances -- they should be permitted to leave the situation at any time.

For example, if children would like to visit their sibling in the hospital, they should be accompanied by an adult who can take them out of the room as soon as they are ready. Child life specialists can serve this function, or the child can come to the hospital accompanied by a relative or family friend.

Children who attend the memorial service of a child who dies should come with an adult who can take them away from the service at any time they ask to leave.

Parents might be hurt when a child wants to leave the bedside or funeral of a sibling, but this is a normal response -- not an indication of indifference on the child's part. Children are not capable of absorbing all the implications of a painful situation all at once as adults are. They don't have the frame of reference that increased life experience provides. While reality sets in, the children will want to return to what's normal for them.

Children may show a similar desire to get back to regular activities when parents try to have a serious talk. For example, after a parent explains a sibling's diagnosis, the child may ask to go back to playing. This doesn't mean the child hasn't heard or understood. Experts advise parents to honor the child's request and participate in the activity in case questions arise.

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