When a child is diagnosed with cancer, everyone in his or her family is affected by the experience, including the child's brothers and sisters. Siblings can feel angry, anxious, lonely or sad. They may even feel guilty for being healthy or for resenting the attention their sibling is getting. You can help your children cope with a sibling’s diagnosis in some of the following ways:
- Give them the chance to talk about how the experience is affecting them.
- Be open and willing to answer questions about their brother or sister’s cancer and treatment.
- Reassure younger siblings that they cannot “catch” cancer from their brother or sister.
- Explain that their brother or sister didn’t do anything that caused the cancer.
- Warn siblings that their brother or sister may have less energy or lose his or her hair.
- Explain that other concerned family members and friends may ask them about their sibling’s diagnosis. Talk about appropriate responses.
- Remember that brothers and sisters still have their own problems, unrelated to their sibling’s cancer. Their problems are real and require your attention.
- Provide consistent, fair discipline to all your children, even though it may be more difficult right now.
- Allow older siblings to help with their younger brother or sister's care in age-appropriate ways, such as reading a bedtime story.
- Let all your children know that you love them and are proud of them.
Keep a Routine and Share Information
Siblings need to continue to go to school and participate in their usual activities as much as possible. However, disruptions to their routine are inevitable, and they may feel lost or overlooked. Here are some suggestions for keeping them from feeling overlooked or ignored:
- Let siblings know when a hospitalization or long clinic day is anticipated.
- Let siblings know where they'll be staying (if not at home) and who will be staying with them. Explain any other arrangements that have been made to provide for their care if the family routine has changed.
- When possible, let siblings have a say in where they would like to go after school and whom they'd like to care for them when you're not available.
- Arrange for siblings to visit the hospital when possible and spend time with their brother or sister playing board games or watching TV together.
- If you can, introduce siblings to the treatment team, who can help give medical information and reinforce that the siblings are special, too.
- Arrange for regular "alone time" with each sibling.
Ask Others for Help
Consider asking others to help as well:
- Ask family, friends or neighbors to help get children to their usual activities.
- Let each of your children's school teachers, nurses and guidance counselors know what's happening. (Don't assume they communicate with each other.)
- Identify, with your child’s help, a "safe" person at school to talk with when they're feeling scared or sad. Request a hall pass so they can leave class to talk with that person when they need to.
- Ask your hospital's social worker or psychologist or your school psychologist whether your community offers programs for siblings of children with cancer.
Read the PDF, Coping With a Childhood Cancer Diagnosis, for more ideas for helping your children, family and loved ones cope.
- Download or order The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s free booklets:
SuperSibs, a program of Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, provides programs and support for the siblings of children with cancer.