Brothers and sisters 3

Brothers and sisters

The brothers and sisters of a child with cancer may have many or all of the same feelings and emotions that parents have.

If you need to spend a lot of time in the hospital with your child, your other children may need to be cared for by family members or friends. They may have a lot of time away from you and find their daily routine keeps changing. As well as worrying about their brother or sister’s health, they may also feel resentful of all the attention they’re getting. This can make them feel very left out and angry. They may worry that they’re also going to get ill.

Make time for your other children. They will go through hell but the chances are they will try to hide it from you as they won't want to upset you even more.

Simon, dad of son with leukaemia

It can help to plan some time to let your other children be the centre of attention for a while, perhaps by going out for a meal or to see a film. Even 10 minutes at the end of a day can make a big difference. If your child with cancer is having some special attention – for example, having sweet treats or their favourite things to eat – you can do the same for other children in the family so they don’t feel left out.

The needs of brothers and sisters can sometimes be overlooked, particularly in the early months when you may spend most of your time caring for your ill child in hospital or at home. Many brothers and sisters keep their feelings bottled up inside to avoid worrying their parents. Each brother and sister will react very differently to the diagnosis and and its consequences but the following are some of the issues which may arise:

  • Jealousy - they feel jealous as the sick child gets more attention and treats than they do, or because adults are less strict with the sick child
  • Anger - they may feel angry about the unequal attention shown, or feel angry that their sibling is ill
  • Fear - they can be very scared and have frightening fantasies about what is happening in hospital
  • Guilt - they may feel that the illness is their fault as they may have wished that something horrible would happen to their brother or sister or that fighting with them caused the cancer. They may feel guilty for being healthy.
  • Complaining about feeling ill - sometimes this can become a real problem, making them anxious. They may panic even with a cold or become preoccupied with their own health or body
  • Missing their parents
  • Coping with changes within family life
  • Concern about what might happen

Problems at school 

Often, the place where siblings may show how they feel is at school. They may:

  • withdraw and become very quiet
  • become disruptive in the classroom
  • cry easily
  • become frustrated and have outbursts of anger
  • fall behind in class work
  • get lower marks than usual
  • start missing school
  • become rebellious towards teachers
  • have arguments and fights with friends and other children in their class

It will help to let your children’s head teacher(s) know that their brother or sister has been diagnosed with cancer. You can ask for the school’s help and support for your children. The teachers will understand that feelings may be expressed through behaviour at school, once they’re aware of the stresses facing the family.

If a sibling is obviously having difficulty dealing with the situation, talk about it with staff at the hospital such as the specialist nurses or the social worker. They can arrange for counselling, help and support for you and your other children. Some hospitals have support groups for siblings.