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Siblings of Children with Chronic Illnesses

Taking care of our son's illness takes a lot of time and attention away from our other children. How do we make sure their needs are met as well?

Parents are not the only ones who must adjust to a child's illness. Life changes for the entire family.

Parents have to pay extra attention to an ill child, and brothers and sisters often feel neglected. They might also have difficulty learning to live with the stresses of having a sibling with a chronic health problem.

How Siblings Might Feel

Some children experience guilt that they are not sick ("Why him and not me?"). As part of the magical thinking of young childhood, they may wonder whether an evil thought they have had about a sibling might have caused his illness. They may feel anxious about becoming sick themselves, or they may sometimes wish they were sick, too, so they could become the center of the family's attention. They might feel angry if they are asked to assume more household chores than their ill sibling, or guilty when they resent the additional responsibility. They may become embarrassed when strangers stare at their brother or sister in a wheelchair, or when other children tease their sibling because she looks different.

What You Can Do

Be aware that while attending to the needs of your child with a chronic illness, you may be neglecting  or creating unfair expectations for your healthy children. Too often, siblings become invisible unless they demand attention. On the other hand, siblings can participate in the family and feel pride and love in helping their brother or sister with his or her health problem. The presence of a family member with a chronic illness provides opportunities for increased empathy, responsibility, adaptability, problem-solving and creativity.

Try to establish some balance between the needs of your ill child and those of your other children. Spending time with each child individually may help. Develop a special relationship with each one of your youngsters. Also, keep in mind that siblings need to have honest information about the illness and to have their questions listened to and answered.

Warning Signs That Your Other Children Are Having Trouble

When there is a child with a chronic illness in your family, your other youngsters may experience negative repercussions.

Here are some warning signs indicating that the siblings of your ill child may need some extra attention.

Is a sibling:

Developing Resilience

No one would choose to have a child with a chronic illness. However, living with a chronic illness can teach adults and children a lot about themselves and those around them. Adults and children can learn about their strengths and limitations, and they can learn new ways to solve problems and to be resilient. These are lessons that can serve them well for the rest of their lives.

In the months and years ahead, continue to reassess your goals for your child and your family. Be willing to make changes that serve both the youngster with the chronic health problem and everyone else in the family. As much as possible, involve your child in these decisions, particularly when they affect him. Stay informed and give yourself credit for all the hard work you have done.

No family knows from the outset how it will adapt to the reality of a child with a chronic health problem. There is no right way or wrong way to adjust; rather, every family should strive for its own balance. Many factors will influence this process, including the course of the disease and the resources available to the family. While all families with chronic health problems struggle through times of fear and despair, many also develop a resilience, a creativity, and a closeness they did not always have.

Last Updated
Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12 (Copyright © 2004 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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