Supporting Siblings of a Child with a Chronic Illness

When a child has a chronic illness, it can be overwhelming and stressful for the whole family.

While the focus often falls on the child with a chronic illness, their siblings also face their own struggles. Having a sibling who is chronically ill can be scary for kids, where a child may worry about losing their sibling, have anxiety about the unknowns, or fear becoming sick themselves. They may even irrationally blame themselves or feel guilty for being healthy. 

If the chronic illness is new, siblings may struggle with adjusting to their family’s changes. They may miss having time with their parents and miss their attention. They also can feel resentful if their parents’ expectations change for them, such as asking them to take on more responsibilities and chores, or expecting them to be more independent.

Signs Your Child is Struggling

If your child is having a hard time, they may not come to you and tell you directly. More often, you need to look for signs that your child needs support. 

You may notice emotional changes in your child, such as them acting anxious, depressed, angry, or withdrawn. They may begin to perform poorly in school, lose interest in friends and in the things they love. Some kids act rebelliously or act out to get their parents’ attention, even if it’s negative attention. 

Sometimes, kids may appear to be performing very well in school or in sports and activities but instead are actually overachievers, pushing themselves to perfection in unhealthy ways. 

Getting Help

If you are noticing these warning signs and concerned about your child, you should contact your provider at Pediatrics West by calling (720) 284-3700. We can talk through some of your child’s struggles and help connect you with local resources, such as social workers, family therapists or family support groups in our area.

Healing and Coming Together as a Family

Families can learn to thrive together and can become even closer through this shared experience. Siblings of children with chronic illnesses have unique opportunities to develop empathy, resiliency, coping skills, and learn new ways to solve problems. Here are some things parents can do to help their family be stronger together:

Balancing the Needs of Each Child

Because siblings can often feel left out, it’s important for parents to make sure they are balancing the needs of all their children. Parents should give each child time and attention, making an effort to spend special time with each child individually.

Open Communication

Families who communicate openly and share their feelings and struggles feel more connected and supported and are better able to handle chronic stress.

Unknowns can be scary for kids, so it’s important for parents to provide them with honest information about their sibling’s condition. Parents should listen to their questions and answer them in ways that are appropriate for their age.

Parents can encourage their children to share their feelings and their worries or fears. Parents should actively listen and acknowledge their child’s feelings and what they say. To actively listen, they should maintain eye contact and paraphrase back what their child is saying. Parents can also help guide their children to find solutions to what they are facing.

Parents also should model this for their children and model healthy ways to handle their feelings. For example, a parent might say, “I’m feeling sad that your sister has been so sick. Hugs always make me feel better. Could I have a hug?” Or they might say, “I’m feeling stressed out by everything I have to do. Let’s have a dance party to shake off some of that stress.”

Get Siblings Involved

Siblings of a child with a chronic illness can be great helpers when given jobs that are age appropriate. This can help them feel a part of your family’s team, as well as give them a sense of responsibility and pride for caring for their sibling. When the family pitches in together, it can help the family bond and bring everyone closer together.

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