How to Support Siblings of Children With Cancer

Siblings of children with cancer face a range of emotions – from anger to sadness, worry and guilt. As a parent or caregiver, you play an important role in how your entire family navigates what comes next. Here are steps to help your child cope with their sibling’s cancer diagnosis.

Be honest about your child’s cancer diagnosis.

While it might feel like you should keep information about your child’s cancer diagnosis from their siblings, it can cause more harm than good. Instead, be honest about what’s happening in a way appropriate for their age and stage of development.

For instance, with young children, explain that their brother or sister is sick and that doctors are working hard to help them get better. With older children, such as school-aged children and teenagers, answer questions honestly — including tough ones.

For all ages, talk about cancer in words they can understand. You might tell a younger child their sibling needs medicine, while you might tell your teenager their sibling is going through chemotherapy.

Truly listen to their feelings.

Supporting your child with their sibling’s cancer diagnosis is more about listening than talking. By taking the time to listen to their feelings, concerns, and questions, you can help them navigate this confusing time.

Leaving space for their feelings allows them to express concerns. They may wonder about the cause of cancer, worry about “catching” cancer from their sibling or have questions about what happens next.

Maintain routines as much as possible.

Children thrive on routine. While routines might look slightly different for a while, keeping routines as consistent as possible can ease uncertainties and help siblings know what to expect.

Some ways to maintain routines include:

  • Keeping a family calendar posted where everyone can see it, including information about hospital stays and where siblings will be staying (if they are not staying at home)
  • Maintaining consistent caregivers when possible
  • Arranging for one-on-one time with at least one parent or trusted caregiver each day

When children know what’s coming next, it’s one less thing they have to worry about and one more way you can help them feel comfortable.

Arrange enjoyable activities for your child.

When possible, schedule fun activities for your child. This might be an outing with you or another caregiver, or it might be a trip to the movies with their friends. Whatever it is, remind your child that it’s still okay to have fun — and they shouldn’t feel guilty about doing so.

Foster the sibling relationship.

Help siblings stay connected through hospital visits or video chats when in-person visits aren’t an option. You can also give your child a photo or special keepsake, such as a stuffed animal, to hold onto while their sibling is away.

Keep an eye out for any changes in your child.

Monitor your child for behavior changes or signs of distress. Pay attention to changes in eating habits, sleep patterns, energy levels and separation anxiety. Talk with your child’s teachers, guidance counselors or health care providers to help spot changes in behaviors.

Get your child extra support if they need it.

If your child asks for or shows signs of needing extra support, make an appointment with your pediatrician. Your pediatrician can help with steps, such as counseling, support groups or working with a Children’s child life specialist.

A cancer diagnosis in the family affects everyone. By being open and honest with all members of your family and continuing to foster an environment full of love and support, you can help each other navigate this time together.

Do you need guidance to help your family navigate a cancer diagnosis? Contact your child’s pediatrician or a Children’s child life specialist at 402-955-5322 to get support.


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