When a child is stricken with pediatric cancer, parental attention naturally flows toward comfort, diagnosis, treatment, and physical care of the ill child. The more acute the symptoms and serious the disease, the more that child will garner parental attention. A lengthy and complex diagnostic period will often stir more parental fear for, and attention to, the ill child. The dynamics of parenting a healthy sibling while another sibling is ill can be complex. Here to explain more is author and retired clinical child psychologist, Sally Loughridge, PhD.
In the midst of such a scary situation, young siblings of an ill child sometimes lose their parents’ attention. Yet they too need continued parental focus and support. Understandably, parents may be preoccupied with the medical situation, their own fears, and marshaling resources, both medical and financial. The younger a sibling is, the less cognitive capacity and emotional understanding she will have. Normal friction and jealousy among siblings may be made worse by one child becoming very ill. Even a healthy small child who can play well on his own needs continued time and attention from parents. Independence does not indicate a lack of need for connection and reassurance.
What can parents do?
When faced with the challenging of juggling the needs of all their children during a pediatric medical crisis, there are many strategies parents can use to help a healthy younger sibling feel loved and attended to. These include:
- honoring regular, uninterrupted private play time with the child, with emphasis on quality if time is short
- frequently expressing affection verbally and physically
- reassuring the child of continued love and caring
- maintaining regular family routines as much as possible
- staying in daily touch by phone, mail, and/or Skype when away overnight with the ill child
- including the child as appropriate in care and comfort for the ailing sibling
- facilitating quality time together for the healthy and ill children, in favorite ways, as possible, and new ways
- taking excursions geared to the healthy child’s interests, such as going to the playground, park, zoo, or a movie
- arranging special visits for the healthy child with extended family and friends
- encouraging the child to share his or her feelings and questions about the situation
- expressing acceptance of the child’s feelings, however intense and mixed, yet maintaining reasonable behavioral expectations
- showing empathy for the healthy child as well as the ill child
- asking for help from other adults when you need a break or childcare
Even on a exhausting medical journey, most families can balance their children’s needs through caring, connection, communication, and creativity.
A resource for parents
For parents, balancing the needs of several children when one is quite sick is very difficult and, indeed can feel impossible. Yet reassurance, regular private time with each child, and use of the wider family support network are critical. My book, Daniel and His Starry Night Blanket: A Story of Illness and Sibling Love, is a resource for families with young children on such a journey through life-threatening pediatric illness. This tale of a small boy, whose older sister gets cancer and, from his perspective, far too much of the family’s attention, illustrates how a young sibling often reacts and ways his parents can support him. Here are several excerpts from the book:
For more information about supporting children and families who are dealing with cancer, visit MaineHealthCancer.org.
SALLY LOUGHRIDGE, PhD is a retired clinical child psychologist, professional artist, and cancer survivor. She lives and paints year-round on Maine’s MidCoast. She is available to give presentations on the needs of healthy children when a sibling has cancer or other life-threatening illness. Daniel and His Starry Night Blanket: A Story of Illness and Sibling Love will be released August first. It is available through www.amazon.com, www.maineauthorspublishing.com, and www.sallyloughridge.com. Her earlier book, Rad Art: A Journey Through Radiation Treatment (American Cancer Society 2012) shares the daily paintings and written journal she kept during six and a half weeks of daily radiation for breast cancer. It is available through www.amazon.com, www.cancer.org, and bookstores. Sally’s artwork can be seen at Mast Cove, Pemaquid, and Tidemark galleries and on her site, www.sallyloughridge.com. Check out Sally’s previous CancerSavvy blog post here: http://mainehealthcancer.org/blog/restorative-power-imagination/