Supporting siblings through COVID-19

While the world’s attention is firmly focused on COVID-19 on a global scale, sometimes the smaller and not so obvious impacts can be overshadowed despite the lasting effects. March this year saw new measures put in place to protect patients and their families at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick (SCH) and The Children’s Hospital at Westmead (CHW) from contracting COVID-19, impacting sibling visits.

Having a brother or a sister in hospital can be a stressful and emotionally confusing time for siblings of all ages. When siblings can no longer be by the bedside, as is currently the case for family members across many hospitals in an effort to reduce the risk of infection to those already immunocompromised, these behaviours and feelings may be heightened. Children often express themselves in non-verbal ways as they may not have the emotional vocabulary to talk about complex feelings. It is their way of expressing a lack of understanding and a need for help from the adults who support them.

CHW Social Worker Bess McMahon says, if parents and carers identify with this, it is important to have open and honest communication with the sibling and to provide a lead by example approach so they can learn to self-regulate.

If your child is withdrawing or displaying high levels of distress, it is important to help your child make sense of the changes they have experienced by talking to them. Without an honest and age appropriate explanation from an adult they trust, children tend to make up stories about why the changes have been made, sometimes blaming themselves. Try to remain calm during discussions. This is an opportunity for parents and carers to teach children how to self-regulate, since children will naturally look to the adults around them to learn how to react,” said Bess.

SCH Child Life and Music Therapy (CLMT) Manager Janet Burke says trying to meet the needs of siblings can be very difficult for families at the best of times but even more so now.

While parents and carers may not be able to take away the source of their child’s emotional pain, there are practical strategies to help ease their stress and make them feel secure, supported, and still connected to their hospitalised family member during the COVID-19 period,” said Janet.

Some practical and creative ways to lessen the impact on siblings and to maintain a connection with their loved ones include:

  • Use of social networks: FaceTime, Zoom or Skype to enjoy family meals and spend time ‘together’
  • E-game on apps like Houseparty
  • Identical craft and activity packs for siblings and patients to experience at the same time
  • Become pen pals and ‘post’ letters through parents or carers
  • Create video diaries to share with each other.

The CHW and SCH Social Work and CLMT departments play a very active role in working with siblings of patients and can be contacted by parents or carers to discuss concerns.

More information about supporting sibling's is available here, including additional information, strategies and resources to help parents and carers feel supported in meeting the needs of all the children in their family.