Brain tumours: Helping siblings cope

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Information on the extremely difficult task of helping siblings adjust to their sibling suffering from a brain tumour.

Key points

  • Everyone in the immediate family is impacted by a child’s diagnosis with a brain tumour. Try to be mindful about the experience and needs of siblings, depending on their age/development.
  • Help siblings adjust by talking to them about their feelings, telling them information they need to know, and keeping their routines as normal as possible.

It can be a challenge for parents to meet the needs of all their children while looking after an ill child. It is important to keep family life the same whenever possible.

Sibling responses to an ill child

Here are some common responses siblings may have and strategies that may help them adjust.

Ask your child how they feel. Any of the following feelings after diagnosis and during treatment are possible:

  • Guilt: Siblings may feel guilty that they are not the one who is sick, or fear that they caused the tumour. Assure them that they did not.
  • Jealousy or resentment: The child with a brain tumour will get lots of attention, gifts and will be missing school because of treatment. Siblings may feel this is unfair.
  • Isolated and abandoned: Siblings may be left in the care of others and will not see their parents as often.
  • A need for attention: In the weeks after the diagnosis, siblings may complain of headaches, vomiting, and other symptoms related to a brain tumour. These may be real responses to the feelings they have, out of a desire to seek attention, or out of sympathy for the ill child.

Find sibling support groups through the hospital or community organizations. Other children who have gone through the same experience can offer support and understanding.

Talk to your children

  • Establish routines to talk with your children, review their day, and ask about their interests. This could be in person or via technology (e.g., phone call or video call).
  • Try to manage their expectations. While there will be uncertainty, be honest about what to expect in terms of the changes they will see in family life, and in their sibling.
  • Include them in discussions about the diagnosis and treatment, based on their understanding and interest.
  • Update them about their sibling’s treatment and condition but be mindful about telling them more than you tell your child who is ill. Involve your child who is ill if they want to help inform their siblings about their condition.
  • Provide simple and age-appropriate information. They do not need, and they may not want to know every detail of what your ill child is going through.
  • Thank them and acknowledge any new tasks or routines they have adopted. It provides positive reinforcement of the sacrifice they’re making in giving up time with you, as well as responsibilities they have taken on.
  • When possible, bring them to the hospital for visits, to see the environment for themselves, and give them the chance to talk to the treatment team.
  • Arrange for a special person for siblings to talk to. This could be a teacher, aunt, or uncle who your children can confide in. If this works, don’t interfere with the relationship.

Coping strategies for your family

  • Try to keep routines as normal as possible.
  • Arrange for your children to keep up with sports or music lessons, play time, and other activities.
  • Follow the same rules at home with your child(ren) as you would before the diagnosis. For example, if you suddenly allow your ill child to engage in a behavior you would not usually allow, they will sense that something is wrong. This may create anxiety in your child and resentment in their sibling(s).
  • Give siblings tasks so they feel they are helping the family. They could make cards, decorate their sibling’s room, or they may have ideas of their own. Some older siblings may like helping with more grown-up tasks. Be mindful of how much they contribute and acknowledge what they do.
  • Try to make sure that family roles do not change too much. Older siblings should not become "substitute" parents. Social workers can help with issues concerning parenting or relationship counselling.
  • It can be a challenge for you to meet the needs of all your children while looking after an ill child. Immediate and extended social supports can offer practical support in caring for your child(ren). These might include grandparents or other family members, close friends, or community supports. The emotional and practical burden for caregivers can be overwhelming and may get harder to manage over time. It is important to reach out to others and accept their offers of help when it fits what you need.
Last updated: January 10th 2022