We know that life can be stressful when your child isn’t well or is in hospital. This can be doubly stressful if you have other children at home to look after.
Parents have told us that sometimes the brother or sister of an ill child can be affected too and show behaviour changes, such as being more clingy to their parents, acting out, having non specific ailments such as tummy aches, or seeming very ‘down’.
Below are a few ideas about the issues facing your other children and suggestions for how you could deal with them.
Brothers or sisters may miss having their parents around to comfort and care for them and they may miss having their hospitalised siblings to play with.
While you are staying in hospital with your sick child, as much as possible, try keeping to your usual routine, for instance naps, meals and bedtimes, to help things feel more normal at home. If your partner is not sure what needs to happen at what time, filling in a care schedule can help.
Our Family File contains a care schedule page that you can download and complete. This can be the time to call in favours from family and friends, particularly if there are complicated school runs or activities to organise.
If possible, try to have some individual time with your well child, so that they know they are important to you too. If you can’t be with your child at home, you could leave them an important item of yours to look after, until you return.
Siblings may be confused if they do not understand what is happening and why their brother or sister is in hospital.
When children do not know what is happening, they may develop their own explanation for what is going on or may imagine something far worse. They may fear that they are going to ‘catch’ the illness from their sibling or that their sibling will never get well.
Siblings should be given as much information as they feel they need to understand their brother or sister’s illness. If you feel unsure how to give this information to your children, you can talk to the play specialist at the hospital for suggestions.
Visits to the hospital can help as well, especially if they are feeling left out. Some children do not want to be involved or visit, and that is fine too. Siblings can bring games to play with their brother or sister if he or she is feeling up to it. If their sibling is too unwell to play, they may want to bring something that they can do. You might also want to prepare your sibling for what they will see and describe how their brother or sister looks or acts if it is different to normal.
It is natural for you to focus your attention on your sick child, and this can cause your other children to feel jealousy or resentment. This can be made worse if relatives and friends focus on the sick child to the exclusion of your other children.
Jealousy can show up in many ways, from general behaviour changes such as ‘acting up’ and arguing or by damaging things belonging to your sick child. It can help to include your other children as much as possible, by inviting them to visit the hospital or make pictures for their brother or sister or talking to them on the phone.
If relatives and friends seem to be ignoring your other children, ask them to include them in any special presents or visits.
Some children react to their brother or sister being ill by becoming angry that they got sick. Anger can be the easiest way for them to express complicated emotions, such as fear or lack of understanding.
Reassure your children that it is alright to feel sad or cross and give them the opportunity to let out these emotions. If your children are young, you might want to play ‘hospitals’ or use art to explore how they are feeling.
When a child does not understand why their brother or sister is ill, it is easy for them to think that it is their fault. Explaining what has happened to their sibling can be helpful to address any thoughts that they have caused the illness or any feelings of guilt because they aren’t sick instead.
Again, using play can be helpful, so talk to the play specialist.
People who can help
Within Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), our psychologists and play specialists are very experienced at helping brothers and sisters cope with their sibling being ill, and can be a helpful resource to parents for supporting their well child.
Talk to the nurse in charge of your ward to arrange some time with the ward psychologist or play specialist.