Prather Pediatric and Allergy Center - Ask Doctor Brent

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Title: Help and Extra Parental Attention Is Important To Siblings of Disabled Children

Category: Child Care


We are now finding that children whose siblings have serious diseases frequently have a higher rate of emotional illness. They may be anxious or depressed, they may have adjustment problems with peers or at school. They may have life long emotional problems that never get resolved. However, closer scrutiny shows that siblings of disabled children can be especially empathetic with a very high self esteem and social confidence and be very well adjusted. The difference seems to depend on how the family treats the siblings.

Naturally whenever a child has a very serious illness or disability, that child will require a lot of the parents' time. Still, there is always a certain amount of time which can be carefully focused on the other siblings. By including them in the sick child's care and letting them feel part of the plan, they can gain skills which can help them later in life. I have seen many a brother or sister of a terminal cancer patient or a cystic fibrosis patient who wanted to be a nurse, respiratory therapist, medical technologist or doctor. They wanted with all their heart to try to comfort other suffering individuals because of the empathy they had gained in growing up with their sick sibling. I've seen other children whose adjustment seemed to be poor and never seemed to get over the fact that the parent didn't spend enough time with them. In other words, they felt neglected and had a hard time accepting the fact that their parents focused so much time on the sick brother or sister. In some cases, children who have a very poor adjustment feel like they are a part of the problem. They feel that in some way their brother or sister's sickness or disability is their fault. For these reasons, it is vital that we as parents explain exactly what is going on to siblings of any sick or disabled child. Let them feel like they can be helpful, which they can, in the overall family adjustment and coping. Through the care of their sick or disabled sibling, they will grow in maturity and will be stronger, more loving adults.

Be careful in explaining disability or sickness to a very young child. Keep it in simple terms and don't try to burden them with too much complexity until they are old enough to understand it.

In summary, research shows that the way that parents function and the way a family copes has a lot to do with how siblings of ill or disabled children turn out. Always maintain an open line of communication and go the extra mile to give that sibling the special attention they also need. Praise them for their healthiness and let them be a part of the overall plan in coping with the pressures that you face, especially as they get older and can offer more direct help. With the right family attitude most siblings will turn out just fine and will handle the pressure of their sick or disabled sibling quite well. Some of them will probably be our best health care workers of the future.