When a child is born or diagnosed with a serious illness, brothers and sisters are bound to be impacted. Why do some exhibit signs of stress or depression while others seem to thrive?
Siblings living alongside a child with a chronic illness will experience a jumble of positive and negative reactions. They can feel love and a combination of resentment, embarrassment, guilt, sorrow or fear simultaneously. Without the skills to understand and cope, a child’s self-esteem can suffer. Anger and guilt can turn inward, leading to a sense of shame or worthlessness. Depression, anxiety or somatic symptoms can arise.
Research has shown that siblings who receive emotional support and assistance from parents and other caring adults can become stronger, more resilient, more compassionate and tolerant. Anecdotal evidence seems to support the notion that many brothers and sisters choose careers in the helping professions, including medicine, mental health, and social work, as a result of their experiences.
Strategies for helping children understand and grow despite adversity include
- Communicating. Let siblings know what is happening and underscore that another’s illness is not their fault. Let them know that their wellbeing matters, also. Talk to your children. Ask how they are doing. Validate the reality that they feel: it’s hard for them to be a brother or sister. Seeing a sibling in pain, feeling that they can’t have friends over because of another’s medical challenges, even feeling embarrassed or angry are all normal responses. The more you communicate your empathy and acceptance, the easier it will be for healthy siblings.
- Empowering. If your healthy children express an interest in being involved with a child’s medical care, allow them to help. The assistance can be as simple, like helping a sibling down the stairs or reading to a brother or sister before bedtime, or as complex as the child’s age, maturity, and interests allow.
- Spending time with the ill child’s siblings. Even parents who move into the hospital with sick children can spend a few minutes speaking on the phone or Skyping with children at home. Never let a day go by without all your children feeling like they had your complete attention even for a few minutes.
- Talking to your children’s schools. When it comes to pediatric illness, many parents want to maintain as high a level of privacy as possible. However, siblings do better when teachers know that all is not okay at home. They can look for red flags that signal distress, and hopefully intervene before small issues become major challenges.
- Understanding normal adolescent behavior. The teenage years are a time of individuation, and some rebellion is normal. Be on the lookout for extremes of both positive and negative behaviors, disordered eating patterns, and even discarding being a teenager in favor of becoming an adult too soon. It’s normal for children in large families to pitch in and help. It’s not normal for them to disregard schoolwork or express that “I’m the mommy now” or “I’m the father.” Behavior that is too good may be a result of the child’s temperament or a sign that they are suffering.
- Giving your children options for sharing. They may not want to tell a parent everything, or you may not be physically available. But it’s important that every child and teen have someone, a relative, family friend or “Big Brother/Sister” with whom they can confide.
How do you help your children cope with the emotional, social, and medical challenges of being a brother or sister of a child who is ill? Share your strategies here.