Suggestions for Siblings

Helping Siblings Cope with a Brother or Sister’s Hospitalization

Having a brother or sister in the hospital can be a confusing and stressful experience for a child. Listed below are some common feelings experienced by siblings of children in the hospital, as well as some suggestions for helping your child cope with the experience.

It is important to remember that each child is different. All children express their feelings and cope with stressful events in different ways. You, as a parent, know your children best, and will be able to tell when they are having trouble coping. Here are some behaviors you might observe:

  • Some children may act out to get more attention, while others may become withdrawn and quiet.
  • Some children may have trouble eating or sleeping.
  • Some children may return to behaviors that were common when they were younger, such as thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, or carrying a security blanket or toy. These behaviors are comforting because they are familiar.
  • Some children may have trouble in school.

One of the most important things you can do for your children is communicate with them. Be honest about what is happening, and let them know that you are willing to listen to them.

Common Feelings Experienced by Siblings of Children in the Hospital

Though each child’s experience will be different, here are some feelings that are commonly experienced by children who have a brother or sister in the hospital:

  • Some siblings may feel left out of their brother or sister’s care. Others may feel that members of the family are not paying enough attention to them, and may feel jealous of the attention paid to their brother or sister.
  • Some siblings may be angry with their parents for not protecting their brother or sister, or may worry that their parents will not be able to protect them from getting sick.
  • Some children may feel guilty about their own good health, or about being happy that they are not in the hospital. Some children might also feel guilty because they are angry with their brother or sister for getting sick.
  • Some siblings might be afraid that they could "catch" their brother or sister’s illness, or that their own health will fail in some way.
  • Siblings may also be afraid that something they did caused their brother or sister to become sick.
  • Some siblings may feel embarrassed, especially if the symptoms of their brother or sister’s illness are clearly visible.
  • Siblings may worry about their brother or sister’s condition, and may feel sad that their brother or sister cannot participate in the same events that he or she can participate in.
  • Some siblings may be upset about the changes in plans and schedules that have to take place when a brother or sister is in the hospital

How You Can Help Your Children Cope

We understand that it can be very stressful for you, as parents, to try to meet the needs of your child in the hospital while also meeting the needs of your children at home. Here are some ways you might be able to make the experience easier for your children at home:

  • Communication is very important.
    • Be honest with your children about their brother or sister’s hospitalization, and give them information in a way they can understand. When children understand the reasons for their brother or sister’s hospitalization, it is less likely that they will have irrational fears and worries.
  • Let your children know that all of their feelings are okay. Also let them know that you are willing to answer their questions and listen to their concerns.
  • Pay special attention to the behaviors of young (preschool-aged) siblings, who may not have the verbal skills necessary to convey their emotions and concerns. Young children often convey their fears and worries through play.
    • Observe and participate in your preschool child’s play so that you can correct any misunderstandings or address any fears that may come up during play.
    • Pretend play with dolls and puppets may help your young child feel comfortable expressing feelings he or she may not be able to express verbally.
  • As much as possible, allow your children to be involved in their brother or sister’s care, or in other tasks that are helpful to the family, when they are willing to do so. This can help alleviate any feelings of being “left out.”
  • Some children might benefit from participating in sibling support groups, or from simply talking to other siblings of children in the hospital. Let your nurse or Child Life Specialist know if you think this would be helpful.
  • Read books with your children that pertain to your particular situation. Books can help children know that they are not alone, and can also help your child feel more comfortable discussing his or her feelings or concerns.
  • Let your children’s teachers know what is happening so they can be understanding and aware of any changes in your children’s behavior.
  • When possible, allow your children to visit their brother or sister in the hospital. Let them know beforehand what to expect (for example, tell them how their brother or sister will look, what equipment they might see, people they might meet, sounds they might hear, etc.).

References

Barrett Singer, A.T. (1999). Coping with Your Child’s Chronic Illness. San Francisco: Robert D. Reed Publishers.

Craft, M.J., and Craft, J.L. (1989). “Perceived changes in siblings of hospitalized children: A comparison of sibling and parent reports.” Children’s Health Care, 18, 1, 42-48.

Gallo, A.M., Breitmayer, B.J., Knafl, K.A., and Zoeller, L.H. (1991). “Stigma in childhood chronic illness: A well sibling perspective.” Pediatric Nursing, 17, 1, 21-25.

Gallo, A.M., Breitmayer, B.J., Knafl, K.A., and Zoeller, L.H. (1992). “Well siblings of children with chronic illness: Parents’ reports of their psychologic adjustment.” Pediatric Nursing, 18, 1, 23-27.

Stewart, D.A., Stein, A., Forrest, G.C., and Clark, D.M. (1992). “Psychosocial adjustment in siblings of children with chronic life-threatening illness: A research note.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 33, 4, 779-784.

Thompson, A.B., Curtner, M.E., and O’Rear, M.R. (1994). “The psychosocial adjustment of well siblings of chronically ill children.” Children’s Health Care, 23, 3, 211-226.

Wong, D. L., Hockenberry-Eaton, M., Winkelstein, M., Wilson, D., Ahmann, E., and DiVito-Thomas, P.A. (1999). Whaley & Wong’s Nursing Care of Infants and Children. St. Louis, MO: Mosby.

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