Siblings in the hospital: Helping your children cope

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When a child is hospitalized, their siblings may feel a variety of emotions including but not limited to confusion, upset or sadness. Find ways to help children cope with having a sibling in the hospital.

Key points

  • When a child goes to the hospital, siblings may have a hard time understanding what has happened. They may react in different ways.
  • Talk to your other children. Encourage them to ask questions. Answer their questions honestly.
  • Help your children feel involved while their sibling is in the hospital.

When a child goes to the hospital, the child's sibling may have a hard time understanding what has happened. They may feel angry, confused or afraid. They may need extra support from you.

This page discusses some things you can do to help your other children while their sibling is in the hospital.

Different children have different reactions

Some children cope by being on their best behaviour, while others act out. The following are all signs that your child may need extra emotional support:

  • nightmares
  • problems at school
  • changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • being quiet or teary
  • getting into fights
  • separation anxiety

Feeling angry or confused are common reactions to having a sibling in the hospital. Brothers and sisters can feel they may have caused their sibling's illness. Children may also feel they are being punished in some way, or feel upset that their parents or other caregivers are not around and have less time for them.

Children may have questions while their sibling is in hospital

Here are some things your children may wonder about:

  • What is wrong? Will my sibling get better?
  • Is it my fault that my sibling is hurt?
  • Could it happen to me, too?
  • Why wasn't it me? Don't you care about me?
  • Will my sibling still know me?
  • Why does my sibling act like that?
  • Why does my sibling get all of the attention?

Talk to your children

Children need to know that it is okay to talk about their feelings and ask questions, and that they will get support and comfort when they need it. Some children avoid telling their parents what they are worried about because they think that it will add to their parents' stress. Many children know or overhear some of what is going on with their sibling and use their imagination to fill in the blanks. It is helpful to invite children to share their feelings and worries with you, and to ask you any questions they may have.

Prepare your children for a visit to the hospital

  • Talk to them about visiting the hospital. Explain when you will visit, where the hospital is and how you will get there. It is better to talk to them about things than to have them imagine what might be going on.
  • Explain how long you will be at the hospital. Tell them when you are leaving.
  • Talk to them about what they will see such as medical equipment or how their sibling will look. Pictures can help.
  • Tell them it is okay to feel nervous or scared. Help them handle and express their feelings.
  • Ask them if they have any questions or concerns about the visit.

Child life specialists can help support sibling visits by speaking with them ahead of time and even providing support during the visit.

Answer questions honestly

Answer your children's questions honestly, directly and simply. It is okay if you do not have an answer. You can always check with hospital staff. Ask your child what they think when they ask a question: this can help you learn what things they do and do not understand.

Talk about what is happening by using words that your children can understand. Check to make sure that the meaning of the words you use is clear to your children, especially medical words.

Spend time together

Parents often spend a lot of time away from home when they have a child in the hospital. When you are not at the hospital, try and plan special time with your other children or call them regularly on the phone so you can keep in touch.

Keep a routine

It is important for children to feel that some part of their world has stayed the same, even though many things may have changed. Routines help children know what to expect. This allows them to feel that they have some control in their lives.

When family and friends ask, "What can I do?" ask that they help your children stick to their schedules. They can take them to their regular activities, such as piano lessons or soccer games.

Help your children feel involved

Children benefit from feeling that they are involved in their sibling's care. This means being part of conversations with and about their sibling. It also means being able to help. You can:

  • Introduce your children to the health-care team, and take a tour of the hospital.
  • Help them start a journal for themselves or to keep as a record for their sibling.
  • Ask them to choose favourite dolls, books or music to bring to the hospital to help their sibling be more comfortable.
  • See if they would like to paint a picture or do some crafts to decorate the hospital room.
  • Arrange for the children at home to phone or video chat their sibling at the hospital if visits are not possible. This will help them feel connected.
  • Write messages or record videos from your hospitalized child and send them home to your other children. The children at home can respond by recording a bedtime story or favourite song.
  • Share photos and write emails, letters and cards.

If you need more information about coping, contact the child life specialist or social worker with your child's program.

Last updated: April 2nd 2024