Siblings of a child who is receiving medical care have a great need for information. Sometimes parents may want to protect a child from this information. However, what a child may be imagining about his or her hospitalized brother or sister could be far more frightening than the reality. Parents know how a child copes with change and should decide how much information share. Keep communication open and honest. Provide opportunities for them to ask questions. Call the Child Life Program for help explaining a hospitalization to a sibling. Allow siblings to visit if possible in person, or via phone or the internet. Before a sister or brother visits the hospital for the first time it is helpful to check if he/she has a clear understanding of what the hospital is and the role of nurses and doctors. It is also helpful to explain some of the medical equipment they will see in a way that they can understand. Child life specialists can help to prepare, answer questions, and assist siblings prior to, during and after a visit.
Read books about hospitals or visit good websites. Young children may benefit from coloring books/pages related to hospitalization. Try to keep daily routines as normal as possible. When possible, keep child care consistent and stay in touch with a young sibling by phone or internet to reduce anxiety over your absence.
Common feelings that siblings have include:
- Fear - Siblings worry that their brother or sister might be in danger. They also worry that their brother's or sister's illness or injury will happen to them. Reassure children that all family members are safe and that doctors and nurses are taking good care of their brother/sister.
- Jealousy - Siblings may feel left out when the hospitalized child receives more care and attention (also gifts) from other family members. When possible, ask a close family member or friend to help support siblings with extra attention while you care for a hospitalized child.
- Anger - Siblings may be angry or upset about the changes at home and in their normal daily routine that the hospitalization has created. When possible, prepare children in advance when plans need to change. When children get mad, recognize angry feelings and credit kids for their hard work. Example: “Thank you for trying to be patient. I know it is hard.” /Or “You got your homework done when I couldn’t be there to help! Great job!”
- Needy - Siblings may feel that their parent/guardian cares more for a sibling than for them when more time is spent with the hospitalized child. When you can, offer lots of hugs to the well child. Thank them for helping you by being patient, waiting a long time, or any task they complete while you are gone.
- Guilt –Young children often think that something they did or said caused the illness/injury to happen. Siblings might feel responsible for a brother or sister’s hospitalization. They also might feel guilty over being angry or jealous about the extra attention a sibling is getting. Reassure all children that illness and injury are no one’s fault. Tell them it is natural and normal to have lots of feelings when a brother/sister is in the hospital.