Having a child in the hospital can be a stressful time for all members of the family, especially siblings. Brothers or sisters may have many conflicting feelings when they have a sibling who is sick. The stress on the family can bring up a lot of emotions for children at home. Siblings of a hospitalized child may express many common feelings such as:
- Sadness: This can be from missing you and their sibling who is not at home.
- Fear and worry: Siblings can express fear of getting sick themselves or catching the illness. They may worry about the sick child and caregiver, worry about who will care for them while you are in the hospital, and worry that their sick brother or sister may not get well or come home.
- Anger: Feelings of anger at the sick child and caregiver are common for brothers and sisters at home as a result of missing family members and decreased parental attention.
- Loneliness and being left out: Siblings may feel “left out” because they are often spending more time than usual away from their parents or alone.
- Jealousy: Feelings of jealousy can arise in siblings because of the extra attention given to the sick child, including gifts and special visitors.
- Confusion: Siblings may express feelings of confusion or not understanding with is happening, especially if the hospitalization is sudden or unexpected.
- Guilt: Sometimes brothers and sisters can think that they caused the illness or hospitalization because of something they did or said. Siblings may express feelings of guilt that they are healthy or feel bad that they can do things that their brother or sister in the hospital cannot.
Brothers and sisters of hospitalized children may express their feelings through behaviors such as:
- Eating more or less than normal
- Changes in sleeping habits – sleeping more or less than usual
- Withdrawing or being more quiet
- Playing more aggressively; fighting or hitting others
- Acting in ways to get more attention; not listening or breaking rules
- Spending time alone or away from family members
- Over pleasing caregivers or other grown-ups
- Asking for more affection than usual
- Regressing in behaviors such as: bed wetting, “baby talk” or thumb sucking
- Seeking attention by acting or saying they are “sick”
Ideas for supporting siblings
You can help your children with these feelings by providing each of your children extra support and comfort. Siblings can cope better if a caring adult helps them by:
- Talking with them about what's happening with the sick child. Provide children with open, honest and age appropriate information about why the child is sick.
- Encourage them to ask questions. Try to answer all questions yourself or ask for help from the medical team.
- Provide a time to talk about their feelings. Let them know that it's okay to cry, be angry, be happy and have many different feelings.
- Have the children at home keep daily routines as normal as possible. They should continue with normal activities, such as school attendance, meals, naps and bedtimes.
- Provide extra hugs and special attention to brothers and sisters when you are able.
- Ask them to help decorate the hospital room by drawing pictures, sending favorite stuffed animals, or making cards to send to the hospital.
- Seek support from family and friends. Ask hospital staff about ways to find support for yourself and your family.
It’s not always possible to have siblings visit the hospital, but it’s easy to help siblings at home feel connected, even when they aren’t at the hospital. Try activities like:
- Video call or talk to each other on the phone.
- Send photos and videos back and forth.
- Write a card or draw a picture to decorate the hospital room.
- Video or audio record bedtime stories, or read to them over the phone.
Child Life Services at Kentucky Children's Hospital can offer families additional tips on how to support and involve children and teens during a sibling's hospitalization. Call Child Life Services at 859-323-6551 or email KCHChildLife@uky.edu.