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Siblings

Originally published on November 10, 2009
Most recently updated on April 10, 2013

Parents whose child has a tumor are easily overwhelmed by everything that needs to be handled. They may be physically and emotionally drained from extended hospital stays and the intensity of caring for their sick child. Other children in the family may have unavoidably been deprived of emotional support when they, too, desperately need it. They may be carrying a heavy load of fear, grief, and confusion, coupled with anger, jealousy, and guilt. They may not want to upset you further and may keep these painful feelings inside. There may be no one with whom to share these feelings. What’s to be done?

You can begin to help by accepting that the feelings of your healthy children are normal, understandable, even justifiable. After all, you have been much more involved with their sick brother or sister. At home, the sick child continues to need a great deal of attention. Brothers and sisters need special attention and love, too. There are ways even a stressed-out parent can give it that will actually help the whole family.

Tell your other children, as soon as possible and in ways that are age-appropriate, as much as they can understand about their sister’s or brother’s condition and the plans for treatment. Using the correct terms—brain tumor or cancer—can be helpful, because avoiding the terms can make the subject taboo. Often children’s fantasies about what might be happening are more frightening to them than basic descriptions of reality. Assure siblings that they are in no way responsible for the tumor—and that cancer isn’t contagious. Explain that the doctors don’t know all the answers but that everyone is doing whatever he or she can to help their sick brother or sister. Take them to the hospital to visit or to the clinic during treatment, if you can. Involving them in the care of their sibling can help them to feel useful.

“Dad told us that nothing we did or thought or said made my sister sick. He told us no one knows how or why people get brain tumors. He said a brain tumor is a serious illness, not like a cold, and it would need a lot of treatment to make it go away.”

Try to spend as much time alone with each of them as possible. Encourage them to become involved in outside activities, and make a point of recognizing their accomplishments, rewarding them with praise, plenty of extra hugs, and thank-yous. Listening to them can ease feelings that their needs are being ignored because they’re not sick. Don’t hesitate to enlist the help of friends or relatives to transport them to their usual activities or just get them out of the house for some fun.

Remember to alert teachers to what’s going on at home—the family health crisis may make it difficult for siblings to keep up in school. It also may make a cooperative child unruly or a talkative one silent in class; behavior changes in the siblings of children with cancer are the rule rather than the exception. Let the teacher know when you see signs that may signal emotional upset. Ask the teacher to let you know if there are any problems with schoolwork or in the classroom. Be sure to keep the lines of communication open.

Most important of all, share your feelings with both your sick and healthy children. Letting them know that you, too, are concerned or sad or discouraged will make it easier for them to express their fears.

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