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Palliative Care Center

Siblings of Children with Serious Illnesses

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

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.

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

 

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