Siblings of Children with Health Issues

By Douglas Withrow - 10/15/2019


When our children are struggling, or in pain, we scramble for answers, support, interventions — whatever we need to do to get them help, even more frantically when they are fighting for their lives. As adults, with all of our internal and external resources, it is still exhausting, desperate, and heart wrenching. It becomes easy to focus on the next treatment, therapist, or doctor appointment, just to get us through to the next day. With all this energy spent in helping our child, we sometimes lose sight of brothers and sisters. This is especially true when the sibling is cooperating, helping, and being supportive. It is easy to forget, that they may be struggling just like we are, and that they may be internalizing the experience. 

Common experiences for siblings of children with chronic health, or mental health issues include: 

  • Feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • Confusion over what their sibling is experiencing.
  • Guilt that they are healthy, or that it is their fault (particularly for younger children).
  • Resentment of added burdens such as chores, or lack of opportunities such as lessons, or sports because of time, or financial limitations.
  • Jealousy of the attention the sibling is receiving.
  • Embarrassment of situations where medical equipment is needed in public settings, or of attention drawing behavior. 

As a child, many of these thoughts and emotions go unexpressed, ultimately growing into a burden that we as adults even we have difficulty carrying. Their silence is often praised with words of affirmation, such as “she has been a trooper,” or “he is so helpful,” which encourages the silence.

So, what can we, the parents, do? 

First, you don’t have to do it alone. Enlist the support of family, friends, faith communities, and health care providers.

Second, encourage your children to ask questions and share feelings, by modeling. Let them hear you talk about your feelings. While you should not lean on them for support, it is still okay to say, “I know this is hard, I feel sad sometimes. Do you feel that way, too?” Then, simply listen. If they don’t have anything to say, keep the door open, and revisit on occasion.

Third, reassure them. They did not cause the issue and even though it is difficult for everyone, you will take care of them, and they don’t have to worry about you.

Fourth, try to spend alone time with each child. You may not be able to spend the afternoon together, but you can make a quick run to get an ice cream cone, sit on the end of their bed for 15 minutes after school, or walk around the block. A few minutes of attention can do wonders.

Fifth, get to know each child — their personality, favorite food, interests, names of friends — and start conversations about those things.

Sixth, be honest about information. In my experience, secrecy does more damage than honesty — even with difficult information. If a child can count on a parent being strong for them, it is better to have information than be surprised, or worry. If you have questions about how and when to share age appropriate information, speak with a health care provider.

Also, let go of the small stuff. If the choice is picking up a pizza and being able to have 20 minutes with your son verses making a dinner which takes an hour to make and clean up, choose him. If the house is a mess and your daughter is sitting alone playing video games, take 15 minutes to join her. Finally, take care of yourself, sleep an extra half hour rather than reading another article on the issue. Turn your volunteer responsibilities over to other people. Eat regularly to sustain your energy. And, to restate the first suggestion, ask for help from friends and family with dinners, transportation, over nights, cleaning, and a listening ear. When you care for yourself, you have more reserves to care for your children.

Helping our children through chronic, or life threatening health issues can be overwhelming. Remember, as you help the child who is dealing with the illness, their siblings are there and they also need your love and support.

Article by Douglas Withrow – MDiv, LMFT, MSC, S-PSB

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