Ways to help siblings cope by age

A child’s cancer diagnosis affects the whole family. These age-specific tips will help you help your other children cope when their sibling has cancer.

Infants and younger siblings

Cuddle and hug them often.

Explain the illness in simple terms. Reassure them that people are helping their brother or sister get better.

Reassure them that you will be home as soon as you can.

Arrange short visits to their brother or sister in the hospital. Help them feel involved by getting them to help with simple tasks such as picking out a toy or book to take to the hospital.

Rely on relatives, friends or daycare to help maintain a normal daily routine.

Try to have one parent spend time with them every day. If you can’t physically be with them, try to phone them. Tell them how much you love them. Read them their favourite story over the phone or sing them a lullaby, or leave a recorded message, story or lullaby that they can listen to at bedtime.

School-age and teenage siblings

Talk to them about the diagnosis, treatment, side effects and how their sibling is feeling in ways they can understand.

Answer questions honestly. Admit if you don’t know the answer and try to find the answer. Arrange conversations with the healthcare team if the siblings feel that this would help.

Be on the lookout for signs from your child that they may have more questions. You know your child best and whether this might be shown by looking away, crossed arms or a frustrated tone or some other way.

Reassure them that they did not cause the cancer and that they will not catch it.

Talk about how it’s normal to feel scared, worried, sad and angry. Explore ways to express and cope with those feelings such as physical activity, writing in a journal or creating music or art.

Share how you are feeling and how you express your feelings without hurting others.

Encourage siblings to maintain contact with their brother or sister in the hospital through letters, emails, telephone calls or video chats, recorded messages, drawings, cards and visits when possible.

Let teachers and coaches know what’s going on so they can offer support to the siblings.

Try to keep regular activities going. This helps keep the siblings busy and maintains a sense of normalcy. Neighbours, friends and other parents are often willing to help get siblings where they need to go.

Encourage the siblings to have fun. Reassure them that it’s OK and healthy to have fun even when their brother or sister is ill.

When possible, involve siblings in making decisions about things that affect them, such as whose house they can go to after school or which parent should come to their hockey game. This helps them have a sense of control and tells them that their opinions count.

Let them feel useful by helping out at home. Be sure to tell them how much you appreciate their help while being careful not to give them more responsibility than they can handle. They need time to act their age.

Assure siblings that the family will be able to handle this crisis.

Try to have one parent spend time with them every day. If you can’t physically be with them, phone or text them and focus solely on them – what their day was like, how their test went, how their game was and so on. Tell them how much you miss and love them. Ask a relative or friend to spend special time with them.

Expert review and references

  • Getting Ready for an Operation. Hospital for Sick Children. Hospital for Sick Children - Family Information. Toronto, ON: Hospital for Sick Children; 2005.
  • Hospital for Sick Children. AboutKidsHealth: Preparing for Treatment and Hospitalization. Toronto, ON: Hospital for Sick Children; 2004.
  • Your child having surgery. Medical University of South Carolina. MUSC Children's Hospital: Health Library: Surgery. Charleston, SC: Medical University of South Carolina;

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