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How to Help a Child Cope When a Sibling Has Cancer

When a child is diagnosed with cancer, it can affect every member of the family. It can be especially difficult for siblings.

“Brothers and sisters of children with cancer are impacted in many ways when a sibling is battling cancer,” said Tracey Hawkins, a certified child life specialist at Banner Children's at Desert in Mesa, AZ. “They may feel they are to blame, feel afraid they caused their sibling’s cancer or feel neglected because they are not sick themselves and receiving that undivided focus and attention. They observe their loved ones as anxious, fearful or in pain. They are also adapting to new routines at home and school.”

While there are many challenges in the journey ahead, as a parent you can help siblings navigate this confusing and sometimes scary time with unconditional love and understanding.

We asked Hawkins to share tips for helping your child cope with a sibling’s diagnosis and how to recognize and help your child if they are struggling.

Tips for helping your child cope with a sibling’s cancer diagnosis

When a brother or sister is diagnosed with cancer, a lot can change at home. It may cause changes to regular routines, school and work responsibilities and even relationships with others. This can be especially stressful for siblings of children with cancer.

As a parent, here are some tips to help siblings navigating this stressful time:

  • Acknowledge their feelings. Recognize and validate your children’s feelings.
  • Be open about cancer. Use age-appropriate language to explain their brother or sister’s cancer diagnosis. Read more about talking to children about a cancer diagnosis.
  • Create a consistent routine and schedule at home so your children feel safe in their daily routines.
  • Reassure and validate your love. Remind each child they are equally loved and valued.
  • Make time for them. Spend quality time with each child. It can be as simple as cooking dinner together or snuggling together reading a book at bedtime.
  • Set healthy boundaries. Give your child some control within boundaries that you set together, such as when homework is done, they can watch an hour of TV.
  • Nurture their relationship. Find opportunities for siblings to have fun together, whether it’s playing board games, reading together, FaceTiming, writing notes to one another or making crafts.
  • Stay active. Encourage your child to be involved in activities they enjoy (it is okay to have fun!), including afterschool activities.
  • Take care of yourself. You can best help all of your children when you first take care of your own physical and emotional health.
  • Ask for their help. Encourage your child to be involved and let them know you value their help. They can help pick out things their sibling may like while in the hospital or something they can share together to help keep them connected while they are apart.

How to recognize if your child is struggling with a sibling’s illness

No matter your age, when someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, it can be overwhelming. While it can be challenging navigating your own emotions, your child may not know how to talk about their feelings. Instead, they may react through changes in their actions and behaviors. They may start acting out to gain attention or go inward, stuffing down their emotions.

“Age plays a role in how siblings process their emotions,” Hawkins said. “Typically, younger children are more likely to act aggressively, perhaps in a bid to win back the attention they've lost, and older children are far more likely to develop ‘internalizing’ psychological disorders, such as depression and anxiety (pushing bad feelings down).”

If your child is struggling with a sibling’s illness but may not be able to express those feelings, some common responses can include:

  • Withdrawing from family or desiring to be alone
  • Regressing in school and/or development, such as potty training, sleeping or acting out
  • Experiencing physical symptoms, such as headaches, bedwetting, stomachaches
  • Misbehaving in negative and attention-seeking ways
  • Increased separation anxiety from parent or loved ones
  • Exhibiting demanding behaviors, like wanting a new toy for completing expected behavior
  • Trouble sleeping or nightmares
  • Moody and irritable
  • Difficulty focusing

Seek outside help

If your child or anyone in your family is struggling, your child’s cancer care team as well as many local community organizations can help connect you to support groups or can recommend appropriate services for siblings and families. Here are few resources that may help:

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