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Caring for your family when a child is sick

When a child is hospitalized, the entire family hurts. Siblings may be afraid, upset and wonder how the situation will impact them at home.

Emily Durham, supervisor of Child Life Services for the Children’s Hospital of the Greenville Health System, said child life specialists can help siblings understand what is happening and learn to express their feelings, sometimes through books or art.

“One of the things we encourage parents to do is to give basic info to the sibling,” Durham said. “We are specially trained to break that information down in developmentally appropriate pieces and in a way that makes sense to the child.”

Children need structure, so Durham said parents are encouraged to provide that for children at home as much as possible, even in the midst of what is happening with their hospitalized child. Parents should also reassure other children as needed.

“We encourage parents to take breaks and spend quality time with the brother or sister,” Durham said. “It’s up to the parents to step away and get refreshed and have a few minutes of normal time.”

Sometimes, those breaks can be as simple as having lunch with their child or visiting without leaving the hospital campus, if necessary. 

Katie Sullivan, a child life specialist for the Children’s Hospital of the Greenville Health System, said keeping the routine as normal as possible helps siblings stay grounded when their brother or sister is sick.

“Especially for younger children, it can be really hard when their routine is disrupted,” Sullivan said. “Let them know how the routine will change, who will fill in the gaps. Reassure them that their needs will be met. Being able to maintain extracurricular activities can be a therapeutic tool while their brother or sister is in the hospital.”

Making siblings feel needed is also important.

“We encourage parents to give their child a job or task,” Sullivan said. “That helps the child to feel included, if they have a task that they feel is important. It gives them control in a situation where it feels like they don’t have control.”

Electronics may be limited at home, but when one child is in the hospital, they can make a world of difference. Writing letters and making cards can be very meaningful, but FaceTime and Skype can connect siblings in real time. 

Both Sullivan and Durham encourage parents to balance their attention between the sick child and the child’s well siblings, even though that can be extremely challenging. Well children may need reassurance that they didn’t do anything to cause the illness and that they, too, won’t get sick. And just as important, parents need to care for themselves.

“A lot of us tend to beat ourselves up,” Sullivan said. “I spend a lot of time encouraging parents that they want what we want: what is best for their family.” 

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