When a child is diagnosed with cancer, everyone in his or her family is affected by the experience, including the child's brothers and sisters. Siblings can feel angry, anxious, lonely or sad. They may even feel guilty for being healthy or for resenting the attention their sibling is getting.
And although sibling reactions of some kind are inevitable, you can help by making sure they receive your attention. Give them the chance to talk about how the experience is affecting them and other members of the family.
Talk with Your Children
When speaking with your children about their brother or sister's cancer, keep these tips in mind:
- Be honest about the cancer diagnosis and treatment. Kids are savvy and will come to their own conclusions.
- Give age-appropriate information. Don't be overly concerned about giving too much information. Children, like adults, stop listening when they've heard enough.
- Explain to younger children that no one did anything to cause the cancer. Reassure them that they can't catch cancer.
- Be open and willing to answer questions as treatment continues.
- Remember that brothers and sisters still have their own problems, unrelated to their sibling's cancer, that are real and require your attention.
- Provide consistent, fair discipline. This is just as important as ever, even though it may be more difficult right now.
- Let them know you love them and are proud of them.
Keep a Routine and Share Information
Siblings need to continue to go to school and participate in their usual activities as much as possible. However, disruptions to their routine are inevitable, and they may feel lost or overlooked. Here are some suggestions for keeping them from feeling overlooked or ignored:
- Let siblings know when a hospitalization or long clinic day is anticipated.
- Let siblings know where they'll be staying (if not at home) and who will be staying with them. Explain any other arrangements that have been made to provide for their care if the family routine has changed.
- When possible, let siblings have a say in where they would like to go after school and whom they'd like to care for them when you're not available.
- Arrange for siblings to visit the hospital when possible and spend time with their brother or sister playing board games or watching TV together.
- If you can, introduce siblings to the treatment team, who can help give medical information and reinforce that the siblings are special, too.
- Arrange for regular "alone time" with each sibling.
Ask Others for Help
Consider asking others to help as well:
- Ask family, friends or neighbours to help get children to their usual activities.
- Let each of your children's school teachers, nurses and guidance counsellors know what's happening. (Don't assume they communicate with each other.)
- Identify, with your child’s help, a "safe" person at school to talk with when they're feeling scared or sad. Request a hall pass so they can leave class to talk with that person when they need to.
- Ask your hospital's social worker or psychologist or your school psychologist whether your community offers programs for siblings of children with cancer.
- Download or order The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s free booklets:
- Coping With Childhood Leukemia and Lymphoma
Pictures of My Journey Coloring Book