How to Help Your Children Cope with a Sibling’s Cancer
by Lynne M. Kaplan, PhD
Siblings often have a special bond. Even with all the bickering, the love between siblings is strong. When one of those siblings is diagnosed with cancer, their worlds change.
While the family meets with the medical team and learns about the cancer and treatment, the children without cancer often aren’t included. Thus, the healthy siblings may wonder what’s going on with their brother or sister: Is he/she going to die? Am I going to get sick too? Did I do something to cause this? They may feel left out and abandoned, jealous of the extra time that their brother or sister is getting to spend with their parents, or jealous of the gifts their brother or sister is receiving.
Siblings report feelings of worry, fear, jealousy, guilt, abandonment, sadness, and anger. However, they also report increased empathy, compassion, responsibility, self-esteem, maturity, and coping ability. Parents and caregivers can help to support these siblings in several ways.
Children’s ideas about cancer are often scarier than the reality. Explain the diagnosis and treatment in terms they can understand. Prepare them for changes in the appearance of their sibling with cancer. Encourage them to participate in medical discussions if appropriate and if they are interested. Encourage them to ask questions, and provide honest answers. Respond to unasked questions as well, especially about their own health. Be sure they understand that cancer is not contagious and neither they nor anyone else did anything to cause the cancer. Let them know that some common reactions to having a sibling with cancer are fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, and jealousy. This will help to reassure them that they are not alone with their feelings.
With love, encouragement, and support, siblings of children with cancer can learn to cope with their distress and can grow through this experience.
Maintain regular connection between your child with cancer and his or her siblings. Send cards, notes, and videos with loving or funny messages from your healthy children to their sibling with cancer. Exchange updates among the children about things like grades, friends, sports, and other activities to help siblings stay connected to one another. Encourage siblings to visit the hospital. Spend one-on-one time with each of your children, and allow them to spend time with friends.
Listen to your children. Show that you are interested in their thoughts and feelings, and schedule regular times to talk. Talk about what is important to them, whether it be about their sibling’s cancer or about other aspects of their lives. Make sure they know you are available to listen to them, even if they don’t always want to talk. Share your own feelings, such as those of sadness and anger, to show your children that it’s OK to feel this way and to express these feelings.
Regular routines promote a sense of normalcy and help kids know what to expect. Sleeping in their own beds each night, consistent bedtimes and mealtimes, going to school, participating in their usual activities, and family rules are important. Remember also to be patient with your children, as distress and new behavior problems are common in siblings of children with cancer.
Give your children lots of hugs and kisses if they want them, and praise them often. Remind them how much you love them and think about them, even if you aren’t able to spend as much time with them right now. When people ask about your child with cancer, be sure to provide updates and do some bragging about your other children, too.
Inform teachers and school staff that your children have a sibling with cancer. You may want to give them information about the diagnosis and about how it may affect your children at school. Maintain contact with the school, and ask them to provide extra support as needed.
Encourage caring relationships between your children and trusted adults. These trusted adults can provide extra support, as well. Workshops, support groups, and camps for siblings can also be of great value. They can help your children cultivate new friendships with other kids going through similar experiences. If your children continue to struggle, reach out to the medical team or a mental health professional for additional help.
Coping with cancer is tough for the whole family. However, with love, encouragement, and support, siblings of children with cancer can learn to cope with their distress and can grow through this experience.
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Dr. Lynne Kaplan, a psychologist in the Cancer Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, provides support for children with cancer and their families. She also maintains a private practice for adults.
SuperSibs! is an organization that supports, honors, and recognizes siblings of children diagnosed with cancer. Visit SuperSibs.org for resources, research, information, and tips for helping siblings of children with cancer.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2013.