Cancer is the “big bad,” instilling fear in hearts and worry from loved ones. Helping and caring for a child with cancer is already a herculean task, but helping the siblings of pediatric cancer patients is also vitally important.
Siblings of cancer patients will experience stress and emotional pain, and in some cases, can actually suffer from trauma from seeing how the disease affects their loved one. Here are Mighty + Bright, we believe in finding age-appropriate solutions to overcoming the darkest times in our family and friends’ lives.
Previously, we explored How to Help Your Child’s Mental Health During Cancer Treatment. Today, we’re taking a look at how to help and care for the siblings of pediatric cancer patients. No one can do it alone!
Trauma in Siblings of Pediatric Cancer Patients
Before we can explore how to best help siblings of pediatric cancer patients, we must understand that cancer and any chronic health issues are inherently tied to emotional distress for anyone involved. As a parent, guardian, or other adult figure, your pain and worry when it comes to a pediatric cancer patient you care for is immense and valid.
The patient’s pain and loss of many activities they once enjoyed is brutal, and the young siblings of cancer patients also often find their own daily lives sucked dry of joy and color.
To better understand posttraumatic stress reactions in siblings of cancer patients, a team headed by Lynne Kaplan from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia performed a research study. 125 children between the ages of 8 and 17 with a brother or sister with cancer completed Child PTSD Symptom Scale measurements as well as similar tests for anxiety and depression.
The study, published in the Families, Systems, & Health peer-reviewed journal, found that 60% of the children fulfilled the criteria for moderate to severe PTS. 22% of the children fulfilled the full criteria for PTSD.
About 75% of the children report feeling upset when thinking or hearing about cancer and attempting to instead not think about, talk about, or have feelings about the disease. 75% of the sample again reported interference with general life functioning due to PTS symptoms. These symptoms co-occurred with symptoms of anxiety and depression as well.
In conclusion, the research found that siblings of children with cancer experience heavy PTS reactions. These reactions are very much centered on the cancer experience itself. Everyone close to the cancer experience experiences pain. While a sibling’s pain will be different from a parent’s or a patient’s pain, each type of pain is real, valid, and deserving of attention.
Explaining Cancer to Siblings of Pediatric Cancer Patients
Even as adults, we are scared of change and the unknown. The child in your life with a sibling who has cancer will undoubtedly be confused. They will not understand why their sibling’s life and schedule have changed so drastically without your help.
Approaching this conversation with your child can also be scary. You want them to know what’s going on, but you don’t want to scare them unnecessarily either. Yet keeping them in the dark will also cause confusion and fear later on.
When you plan this conversation, focus on sticking to simplified explanations as to what cancer and cancer treatments are. It’s okay to validate the feelings of fear, stress, and sadness, too. Your child doesn’t have to be shielded from these feelings as long as you can recognize the boundary between supporting one another and leaning on your child instead of seeking professional help to cope.
To help with this conversation, we also have a book here at Mighty + Bright called What Happens When My Sibling Has Cancer. Our book features Mia and her stuffed giraffe Stuart as Stuart learns about what cancer is and how day-to-day life changes when someone we know is diagnosed.
The book aims to remove the unknowns of cancer and cancer treatment for kids and reduce stress by empowering children with knowledge. It can also serve as a great launching pad for a conversation that is hard to explain verbally.
Better yet, your child can also rely on the book as a physical reference when they forget about parts of treatment or need a refresher. Filled with adorable drawings and visuals, What Happens When Someone I Love Has Cancer can help us break down a serious and terrifying disease into serious yet logical next steps.
Creating Stability With a Schedule for Your Child
With a family quickly rallying around a child with a cancer diagnosis for treatment and doctor’s visits, it can be hard for a sibling to know what comes next for them as an individual. While a discussion on what cancer is and treatment for it is essential for a sibling to reduce stress and worry, it doesn’t detail what happens next in their personal day-to-day life.
It might take a few days or weeks before you can find some time to sit down and plan a more stable schedule with your child. Interim schedule changes may include different adults picking up your kid from school, fewer or added after-school activities, and more.
When possible, sit down with your child and remind them that whatever changes may need to occur in their schedule is not anyone’s fault. It’s a fault of an illness and the necessary steps you have to take as a family to ensure that needs are being met.
|Empower your kids to cope with a sibling's diagnosis with a visual calendar created just for them.|
If you have to cut back on activities with your child, let them know that this is in no way a reflection of their effort or less love from you. It won’t work out schedule-wise for now, but a replacement option is always viable. Instead of an individual private music class, your child can take more affordable group classes.
If no one is available to pick up your kid from soccer practice now that you have a doctor’s appointment for your other kid, maybe soccer in the backyard is an alternative. Or, there might be another soccer club nearby with a different schedule.
No matter what the changes may look like specifically for your kid, be sure to convey that it isn’t a reflection of poor performance and try to get them to brainstorm replacements with you. This will create understanding and stability. It will also help your child understand that change doesn’t have to be bad and that you aren’t trying to force them to change through sheer force.
We all need a little written or visual reminder when it comes to schedules! Your child is no different. When adjusting the schedule of a sibling of a pediatric cancer patient, there’s a lot to keep in mind.
Changing activities, doctor visits for their sibling...it’s impossible to keep it all straight in your head. Our Calendar Kit for a Parent or Sibling’s Cancer Treatment can serve as a ready-to-go planner in this situation.
This kit is magnetic with a dry erase board and features day-by-day areas for stickers and planning. Our reusable stickers include designs for “tired” days, “good” days, hospital, radiation, chemo, and doctor visits. School drop-off and pick-up stickers can be used to mark different adults coming to pick a child up.
Finally, we also have 5 fill-in-the-blank stickers compatible with sharpies and dry and wet-erase pens. Our shop has additional magnets and stickers as well.
This kit is a great way to help your child have a physical reminder as their schedule changes to somewhat accommodate a sibling with pediatric cancer. It can also give them control over their own activities and is reusable for easy changes during a busy week.
No matter what type of calendar or planner you use with your child, it’s a great idea to have one in a very visible place at home. Alternatively, you can have separate planners for both you and your child and set a time or two each week to plan together.
This can give your child even more autonomy in their planning before meeting with you while giving you insights into what they value and tend to remember most.
Reassure Siblings of Your Equal Love For Them
Unfortunately, siblings of children with cancer or other illnesses might experience confusing feelings. Pain, sadness, and stress are common, but so are feelings of anger or jealousy toward a sick sibling.
When a child is sick, we have to spend more time to ensure that they are comfortable and healing properly. With a common cold or even the flu, this process can take a week or two on average. But cancer and other chronic illnesses are often extremely long journeys.
As St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital details, it’s common for the siblings of sick children to experience anger or jealousy directed at the sick sibling. These feelings often go hand-in-hand with feelings of being left out of the family or activities in general. This can happen especially when important parts of a child’s life like sporting events, art shows, or recitals are foregone for the sake of a sibling’s treatment or doctor’s visit.
There is no right or wrong decision when it comes to sacrificing time and activities to take care of a sick child. However, it is important to include your healthy child in these decisions whenever possible. If this isn’t possible, it’s still necessary to offer an open mind and a caring and listening ear.
It is perfectly normal and healthy for your child to feel left out or even jealous of a sibling getting more attention. This doesn’t mean that you love them any less than their siblings. It’s a result of an unfortunate situation with limited hours in a day.
Make time for your healthier child to check in on their feelings and celebrate their own life and experience. Finding a trusted school counselor or child therapist can also be a wonderful resource for your child to feel seen and heard.
While none of us wish to experience cancer or other illnesses, taking care of a child with cancer will take more time than caring for one without. Find the balance between doing all you can for both children, and have a candid heartfelt conversation with both.
Helping Your Children Stay Connected
Your love for your children is important. But so is the love between your children! When one child has pediatric cancer and frequent visits to the doctor or hospital, it can be hard for your other child or children to keep in touch. This can create fear and sadness especially if they were close before a diagnosis.
On the other hand, it’s not always a good idea to loop your healthy child into your other child’s treatments. It can be scary and unnecessary for your other child, although sometimes being involved isn’t a bad idea if they are up to the task and providing comfort to their sibling.
Instead of attending with your diagnosed child, help your other child stay connected via text messages, e-mails, handwritten cards, and drawings for longer stays at the hospital. Visits whenever possible can also reduce their anxiety. It can also provide a nice break and story-time for the child receiving treatment.
Every sibling relationship is different, but providing your kids with options and tools will help them choose what is right for each of them.
How to Help Siblings of Pediatric Cancer Patients
As with every piece of advice when it comes to cancer treatment and helping family members of those with a diagnosis, there is no right or wrong answer. Stress and anxiety are sure to come and go, and the important part is to help each other when possible and seek external help otherwise.
You can help the young siblings of pediatric cancer patients by being there for them emotionally and physically when possible. Let them know what cancer is in simple terms, and explain that any feelings they have are valid.
They are no less loved despite you possibly having less time for them depending on the day. It’s a time for, unfortunately, you all to help one another in supporting the cancer patient during treatment.
With time and patience, everyone involved can make the best out of an impossible situation. Be sure to read more here at Mighty + Bright for tips on how to live through difficult life stages with young children and family members.