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Helping Siblings Cope

The hospitalization of a child can be frightening and confusing, not only for the child but also for the child's siblings. Siblings of all ages are affected by the hospitalization. Some of the emotions that siblings may experience when a brother or sister is hospitalized may include:

  • Fear that they may "catch" the illness
  • Guilt that they have somehow caused the illness
  • Anger at parents for "allowing" the sibling to become sick
  • Abandonment feelings if parents are spending majority of their time with the hospitalized child
  • Jealousy due to special attention that the patient is being given

These feelings may be expressed in a variety of ways depending on the developmental level of the sibling and individual personality traits of the sibling. The sibling may express their emotions with the following behaviors:

  • Regression to behaviors they have outgrown (thumb sucking, bedwetting)
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Withdrawing from family or peers
  • Acting out to gain attention
  • Increasing dependence on parents

Hints for helping siblings to cope:

  • It is important to give siblings honest, developmentally appropriate information regarding their brother or sister's illness/hospitalization.
  • Give siblings the choice to visit the hospital. Visits can be reassuring and help clear up misconceptions about what is happening to their brother or sister.
  • Prepare them for physical changes such as IV's, tubes, or casts. Explain what these items are doing to help their sibling to get well. A Child Life Specialist can meet with siblings to provide preparation prior to visiting the patient.
  • Plan special time with siblings so they do not feel neglected or forgotten.
  • Maintain sibling's normal home, school routine, and caregivers as much as possible.
  • Share your own feelings with siblings and allow them to express their feelings about the hospitalization with you.
  • If the hospitalization is planned, include siblings in making plans and packing with their brother or sister.
  • Encourage siblings to attend pre-op preparation programs.

Child Life Specialists are trained to help siblings understand and cope with hospital experiences.

To contact a Child Life Specialist:
Inpatient Units: 955-5322
Outpatient Clinics: 955-5312
CARES Unit: 955-5305

Suggested readings: See Resource List.

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