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Siblings of Children with Serious Illnesses

Typical Behaviors for Siblings of a Sick Child

The range of emotions felt during a sibling's illness can lead to distress. Parents should take the following behaviors as an indication that children are distressed, and that their feelings should be addressed.

All Ages:

  • Children of any age can regress to past behaviors, such as bed wetting, thumb sucking, or wanting to sleep in their parents' bed.

6- to 9-year-olds:

  • Nightmares
  • Violent play
  • Aggression
  • Playing the role of the sick or deceased family member
  • Confusion about his own role, i.e. "Am I the big brother now or am I still the middle brother?"

9- to 12-year-olds:

  • Problems in school, behavioral and/or academic
  • Aggression
  • Withdrawal from regular activities
  • Extreme weight change and eating disorders
  • Suicidal thoughts

Teens:

  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Weight change and eating disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Opposition to or defiance of parents; struggling to become more independent from parents while parents may cling more to the child
  • Suicidal thoughts

 

How Can Palliative Care Help Siblings of a Sick Child?

Many hospitals have groups or organized therapeutic activities for the siblings of seriously ill children. Caregivers also refer families to community resources, including summer camps and other recreational programs.

Child-life specialists give individualized attention to siblings of sick children. They help identify siblings' needs, talk to them about difficult topics, and coach parents on how to talk to their kids and answer their questions. Specialists also prepare children to visit a sibling in the hospital, explain procedures and diagnoses using props, and offer expressive outlets through guided art and play activities.

With parents' permission, specialists can work with the children's schools. Experts stress the importance of letting school teachers know what's happening. Teachers can then look for and understand signs of distress. PAC specialists can coach teachers and counselors on how to address the needs of siblings and other students impacted by the circumstances. They can also can give presentations for the classmates of sick children and their siblings.

Chronic or life-limiting conditions bring a host of new responsibilities for parents. Among them are the new and unique needs of all their children. PAC specialists can help parents nurture all their children through this difficult time.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on June 16, 2013
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