Supporting Siblings of Pediatric Cancer Patients

Supporting Siblings of Pediatric Cancer Patients

Acknowledging Sibling Challenges

Older sister hugging her brotherSiblings of a cancer patients often find it challenging to navigate the emotional states of family members as well as their own confusion regarding the diagnosis and future of their sibling. In this blog we will talk about some common emotional challenges the child may feel during this time and some suggestions to support them as they move forward to create a new normal.


Depending upon the age of the child, they may not know how to verbalize their anxiety around their sibling’s diagnosis or the uncertainty they sense in the household. Being transparent about cancer and what the diagnosis means for the sick child and the family as a whole, including details about schedule changes and new helpers being introduced to the family routine. Explaining the cancer and treatment on their level helps with them cope with their anxiety. While keeping to a previous routine may not be possible, understanding the changes lessens the anxiety surrounding them. While the family’s life may now be governed by treatments and doctor visits, whatever routine you can establish is extremely helpful for the other children in the family.

Young brother and sisterEmotions

Just like adults, the reality of a cancer diagnosis sends children’s emotions on a wild ride. Two prominent emotions are guilt and jealousy. If the child does not understand cancer, they may feel they could have prevented it, or feel the unfairness that they are healthy and their sibling is suffering. Their sibling getting enormous amounts of parental attention may cause them to feel jealous. Acknowledging what they are feeling, whatever emotions that may involve, is key to the child feeling validated. If the child thinks that it’s bad or that they will get in trouble for being jealous, angry or frustrated, they may not open up about those emotions. Keeping their feelings inside and feeling as though it’s unsafe to talk about their experience may cause unhealthy coping mechanisms and damage close relationships in the future.

Uncomfortable Situations

Although people mean well in asking after a person who is ill, the constant questions can feel invasive. Adults have coping mechanisms for these situations, but young children are still establishing their boundaries. Having a conversation with the child to understand what makes them uncomfortable and establishing some family ground rules, will demonstrate to the child that you understand their perspective. Parents can help establish these boundaries by speaking with the child’s teachers and caregivers, perhaps with the child in the meeting to give them some autonomy over their environment. The child knowing they can refuse to answer personal family questions, even from their friends, will allow them to feel more comfortable in social situations.

Sister playing with her brotherNurture the Sibling Connection

Helping your healthy child or children spend time with their sibling is another important aspect to maintaining a sense of balance and normalcy within the family. Their sibling has been their playmate and confidant in their life, and they are suddenly separated. Along with their anxiety for their siblings health, they miss the camaraderie. If possible, allow the siblings to hang out together and engage in a typical activity, whether that be sitting outside if the weather is nice, watching a movie or playing a board game. If the children can remember what it was like to spend time together before the cancer diagnosis, it will help ease the transition into this new normal. This time together together is a way to assure both children that, while their lives may have changed, their bond is constant. In addition, there may be an opportunity to meet other children whose siblings have cancer and feel less alone. Although it can be difficult to see a loved one in the hospital, being present does create opportunities that may otherwise not exist.

BrothersRecognizing Admirable Qualities

Siblings of pediatric cancer patients often hear their sibling being admired for their bravery and strength. Acknowledging the siblings positive traits and actions will assure them that they, too, are special. Perhaps admiring their patience and kindness, or thanking them for stepping up to assist with household chores. A little “special time” goes a long way, and this does not need to be in the form of a big outing or special adventure. Simple rituals like hot chocolate when you return from the hospital or a silly word game in the car, something that is exclusive for the parent and child, can make a treasured memory during the strange and challenging cancer journey. And while big adventures like the zoo may not be feasible, enlisting a willing volunteer to be a temporary aunt or uncle during this time may take some pressure off of the parents.

While this is an extremely stressful time for you and your family, there are many individuals and organizations whose mission is to assist during this difficult time. If your child, yourself or anyone in the family is struggling with how to cope, please reach out to a licensed professional that can provide counseling and education. There are also support groups that exist for parents of children with cancer. A group or individual setting may help you to feel less alone and better able to manage the challenges that you are facing.

Here to Serve has served hundreds of families during their cancer journeys by providing non-medical wrap around services. At Here to Serve, our resource referrals can assist families in finding mental health resources, financial services, transportation, lodging, organizational assistance, spiritual support, and more. If you or someone you know could benefit from our services, sign up here.

Author: Hayley Charles

Hayley Charles works in the hospitality field and is passionate about the advancement of mental and behavioral health services in rural areas. She enjoys dedicating her personal time to the growth of Here to Serve by writing informative and uplifting blogs.

Information on the Here to Serve website is for educational and informational purposes only. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical guidance.