Support siblings when a child is in the hospital

December 12, 2014 Katie Allen, MS, CCLS

Anytime a child is admitted to the hospital, it’s a scary and stressful experience for the entire family, including siblings. Siblings may have a vast range of different reactions and feelings so it’s just as important to support the siblings through this difficult time as it is for the patient.

Possible Reactions

Worry - Children may wonder what’s wrong with their siblings, if they’ll get better, if they can catch the condition, or even if they did anything wrong to cause the situation.

Withdrawal - Children may change their regular routine. They may not want to participate in activities that they usually enjoy. They may talk less, not eat as much, or sleep more or less than normal.

Regression - Children may also begin to regress in order to cope with what’s happening. They may become more clingy than normal and demand more attention. If they’re younger, you could see old habits such as thumb-sucking return or, even if they’ve been potty-trained, they may temporarily wet the bed.

Guilt/Anger - Siblings can feel angry or jealous regarding all of the attention that their brother or sister is receiving. They may feel that they aren’t important or don’t matter. At the same time, they can feel extremely guilty for feeling this way because they’re just as worried about the patient.

Helping Siblings Cope

Be Honest - It’s very important to answer questions and explain to siblings what’s happening honestly in terms that are simple and developmentally appropriate. They may have questions, but don’t feel comfortable asking them. Take the time to ask them if they have any questions for you. If you need help with what words to use or how to explain something, child life specialists are available to all pediatric patients and their families at Swedish.

Validate Feelings - Let the siblings know that it’s okay to have the feelings they are experiencing and that it’s safe to talk about them (ex. worry, sadness, guilt, anger, etc.).   Sometimes writing down what they’re feeling or drawing a picture can help them cope with the situation.

Plan a Visit - Give kids a choice of whether or not they want to see their brother or sister in the hospital. If they haven’t been yet, they may imagine something way worse than what is really happening. If they do want to visit, prepare them for the visit by explaining what they will see (like IVs, monitors, machines, etc.). Another good way to prepare them is to take a picture of the patient in their room. This way they can see everything ahead of time and know what to expect. Ask them if they want to draw a picture for or write a letter to their brother or sister. This helps them be a part of what is going on and gives them some control over the situation. 

Spend Time Together and Keep Routines – When you’re at home and not at the hospital, plan something special to do with the siblings. Keep routines as well. Even if you need to have a friend or family member help with getting a sibling around, routines help children to feel safe.

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