Siblings of children with cancer feel a lot of stress. Family routines change, and they may feel experience anger, sadness, anxiety, and guilt. They may worry about what is happening to their brother or sister, feel afraid they did something to cause their sibling’s cancer, or feel as if they are getting less attention from their parents. They can also find it hard to manage school responsibilities and social relationships when everything at home is changing. Parents can help siblings adjust by explaining what is happening, talking with them about their feelings, making space for their concerns and worries, and making sure siblings have routines in the “new normal.”
Helping siblings cope with the cancer diagnosis
When a brother or sister has cancer, it helps siblings cope if they have information about what is happening
Helping siblings cope based on their age and developmental stage
Children of different ages are able to understand different kinds of information. Here are suggestions to help siblings based on their age and stage of development. All siblings, regardless of their age, will benefit from having some time with their parents each week that is focused just on them. For more information about talking with children about cancer in a loved one or family member, see Helping Children When a Family Member has Cancer.
Infants and very young children (birth to age 3)
- Keep your baby or child near you, if possible. Talk with your cancer care team about whether infants can stay overnight when their sibling is in the hospital.
- Use video, phone, and other means so your child can see and hear you in real time.
- Cuddle and hug them a lot.
Toddlers or pre-schoolers (ages 3 to 5)
- Give a simple explanation that brother or sister is sick and that the doctors are helping them.
- Give simple reasons for a parent’s crying and sadness, by saying “I am crying because I am sad.”
- Take time to tell them that they did nothing to cause their brother or sister’s cancer.
School-age children (ages 6 to 12)
- Take your child to an educational or support program or a camp for siblings if available.
- Answer all questions honestly, including, “Will he (or she) die?” Get help from the social worker and cancer care team, if needed. “
- Offer repeated reassurance that the sibling did not cause the cancer.
- Support having fun, despite brother or sister’s illness – make sure they don’t feel guilty about it.
Teens (ages 13 to 18)
- Arrange for the teen sibling to tour the clinic and ask questions of the cancer team if they wish.
- Find out if the cancer center has a special group for siblings.
- Discuss spiritual concerns related to diagnosis.
- When possible, let the sibling help choose where to go after school and have a voice in who they prefer to care for them when a parent can’t be there.
Ask for help
Like parents, patients and their siblings will find that with the help and support of those who love them they’ll be able to handle this cancer crisis. Cancer care teams can refer you to skilled experts to help your family as needed, offering teaching, counselling, support, information, and other resources to make the task easier. Don’t hesitate to ask for help.