“Choice of language and allowing siblings to be involved are key to helping them deal with the fact that their brother or sister is very ill”, says Sibling Support Worker Annalie Ashwell. The world in which a child lives is very different to that of an adult and varies greatly from age to age. Under sevens, for example, tend to fantasise and use their imaginations much more than older children, while teenagers are responding to the emotional and physical changes that are taking place within them.
Clearly they have quite specific needs that have to be taken into account should a sibling be diagnosed with a life threatening or terminal illness.
“Having a very sick brother or sister can have a huge impact on a child,” says Annalie. “They can be vulnerable to depression, anger, guilt and social isolation as a result of the huge changes that take place in the family.”
“Often the sibling has to act a lot older than their age by trying to be the strong one,” she adds. “They might want to look after their brother or sister or they may feel they are missing out on all the attention. Every child responds differently.”
Tell your child as much as you can
Research has shown that a sibling’s response depends on how much they are told. “A lot of parents are worried about telling their children too much, or that they won’t understand because they’re too young,” says Annalie. “This can actually mean they struggle more.”
“It can be difficult to talk to siblings about what is going on but they will usually come up with an answer of their own if they are not told, which could actually be worse,” says Annalie. She also advises against saying things like ‘your brother/sister is special’ which can be very confusing.”
It’s not their fault
Siblings also need to understand the illness isn’t their fault. “Make sure they know they won’t catch it like a cold,” says Annalie. “If the child has a genetically inherited disease that might also affect a brother or sister it’s important that parents don’t shy away from talking about this. Parents should gather information and support from doctors and health professionals as to when and if they should talk about this to the sibling.”
The most important thing is to answer all the questions. “If the child wants advice make sure you answer in a way they will understand,” says Annalie. “Remember, although they might not react to difficult news it doesn’t mean they don’t care. Children express themselves in different ways.”
Our Family Support Workers are skilled in helping families work through these important situations.