Living with leukemia and helping siblings cope

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Learn how to recognize when siblings of a child with leukemia feel left out, guilty, or resentful of the attention on their sick brother or sister.

Key points

  • Siblings of children with leukemia may feel left out or jealous of the attention that the child with leukemia is getting.
  • Be honest with your other children about leukemia and include them in discussions about their sibling's care and treatment.

You may find it difficult to balance caring for your child with leukemia with the needs of your other children. Remember, your child's siblings are experiencing a variety of feelings. They might be jealous of all the attention your child with leukemia is receiving from you and relatives. It may make them feel resentful and left out.

Sometimes, your child’s brothers or sisters may feel responsible for the illness. This is common for children between five and eight years old. Older children might still feel responsible as well. They might feel guilty that they are not the ones with the illness.

When the entire family focuses on your ill child, your other children may start to feel anxious about their own health. They may express their fears through physical symptoms such as headaches, poor appetite, and problems in school. Siblings might also become sick as a way of seeking your attention. If you see these changes in your other children, it may be a sign to give them extra attention and listen carefully to their needs. Talking with the hospital social worker may also be helpful. The SuperSibs! website provides resources, support and events to help siblings of children with cancer.

Talk to your other children about your child’s illness

Be honest with your other children about leukemia. Use simple, age-appropriate language. Use the words cancer and leukemia. They will get used to hearing these words from hospital staff and family members. If you are nervous about using words like leukemia, you children will pick up on this fear. Using the right words will make them trust you and not feel left out of the discussion regarding their sibling’s health.

You are a role model for your children. Young children, particularly below the age of seven or eight, will feel secure and comforted if they sense that you are in control. Children older than eight will pick up on detail more. Even if your news may not be comforting, they respect your honesty.

Encourage your children to share their feelings so they know it is all right to be upset or sad. Share your feelings as well.

Often, siblings take on more adult roles while a sibling is ill, such as doing household chores and cooking. They may become more independent and withdrawn as a result. Your children are sensitive to what you are feeling, and may want to appear stronger than they feel.

Involve siblings in discussions

Including your other children in discussions about your child’s care and treatment will help bring the family closer together. Siblings may then feel less resentful about the attention their sibling is receiving.

Help your other children feel like they can help too. This will make them feel acknowledged and not left out. You can try some of the following:

  • Encourage them to send postcards or video journals to their brother or sister.
  • Give them specific chores and household tasks.
  • Help them create a ‘Boredom Box’ for their sibling: collect crafts and gifts which their sibling can use while in the hospital.
  • Have them accompany your child to clinic or hospital visits.
  • Have them plan family activities. This will make them feel more secure. It can help give them opportunity to try and take some "time off” from thinking about their sibling’s leukemia.
Last updated: March 6th 2018