When a child is diagnosed with a serious illness, their sibling's life also changes forever.
The worst day in the world is the day a parent is told their child is ill. It’s the moment you start living your nightmare, fearing what each doctor’s appointment or change will bring. While in developed countries like the UK, we don’t face as high rates of child mortality as developing nations, and our healthcare system is able to find treatments and cures for many illnesses; there are still thousands of children battling very serious and life-threatening conditions every day. No child should have their childhood impacted by medical treatments, tests and the fear that comes with diseases like cancer (remains the highest cause of child mortality in the UK). However, another complication that comes with dealing with childhood illnesses in this country, is the need to consider families with more than one child, and how the siblings of seriously ill children are affected and can be supported.
When a child becomes ill, the natural instinct for any parent is to show them an overwhelming amount of love and attention; as a result, the healthy siblings can deal with a range of negative effects. As the New York Times reported, “the siblings are also profoundly shaped by the experience” [of dealing with a serious illness]. These ripple on effects are very important to consider for both the families and practitioners working with service users in this situation. Depending on the severity of the illness, family life can be completely reworked to fit around the needs of the ill child; leaving the sibling to feel left out or secondary in the eyes of their parents. This can lead to the well child acting out and misbehaving in order to regain the attention they feel they have lost.
Although the research into the long- and short-term effects on siblings have not been widely studied and shared, information does exist about how children and adolescents adjust to the new dynamic and family life setting. The mental health consequences are as to be expected, with identifiable cases of guilt, powerlessness, loneliness, anxiety, depression, anger, and jealousy while the child is going through treatment. They can also experience issues with separation, trust and commitment later in life, after facing periods of time away from their families due to the illness. In addition to all this, there’s the natural fear that their sibling may not recover and (in younger cases) worry that they did something to cause it. Adolescent siblings can also suffer academically and socially, unless they’re given the appropriate guidance and support during this trying time.
A key consideration to recognise is that these feelings are completely valid. Children and teenagers should never feel like their input in a situation is not respected, and this is even more important when they’re the sibling of a chronically ill child. Sibling support is widely available and families going through situations like this should make sure they consider the different avenues open to them. Practitioners working with cases such as these should ensure that the families have the contact details for charities and organisations who dedicate themselves to being there for those around a seriously ill child, like the Rainbow Trust. Awareness is the first step in creating a structure of support for siblings who are facing the worst of days, when their brother or sister is grievously ill. Once we know how other children are impacted by their sibling being diagnosed with a serious illness, and the information about what help can be found is shared – we can then start to protect every child’s childhood.
The instinct is to protect your sibling from all that could harm it; however, against illnesses like autoimmune diseases or cancer, it’s easy to feel powerless. It’s then important to understand that the siblings need protection from the effects of illness too. There are so many services available that deserve a larger platform for the brilliant work they do in recognising the other victims of childhood illnesses. It should also be considered whether a wider support network could be developed in schools, to help normalise the situation. If children and young people feel like their reactions are being heard and accepted, they will learn to process these negative emotions in a healthier manner. Families should ensure they maintain some level of normality for their healthy child, to reduce the risk of them feeling left out or forgotten; whether that’s with regular bedtime stories, help with homework or attending school functions. Nevertheless, there’s no clear path ahead. After all, we don’t ever like thinking about children who are suffering from life-threatening illnesses, let alone thinking about the emotional turmoil of their families. We need to change this approach though – we need to give everyone affected by serious illnesses our full consideration and support.
One Stop Social hosts a number of helpful resources for practitioners to use or refer to when working with children who are ill and their families. We believe in supporting good practice and if you have a tool or guide you think would benefit our social work community then get in touch and we’d be happy to review it!