Cancer and impact on siblings

Siblings also experience emotional reactions to to their brother or sister’s cancer diagnosis. 

Normal sibling reactions include:

  • fear of catching the cancer
  • fear they did something to cause the cancer
  • worrying their sibling may die
  • anxiety they can’t pinpoint or explain.

Resentment and jealousy

While siblings may feel sad and worried about their sick brother or sister, they may also feel some resentment and anger. 

Mum and dad are spending all of their time with the sick sibling who is also receiving lots of attention from family and friends.

Siblings may feel neglected and even jealous, which is normal. You may notice changes in their behaviour including tantrums, frustration of crying easily. 
They may develop physical symptoms such as: 

  • headache,  
  • abdominal pain,  
  • bedwetting or soiling.  

School refusal, disobedience, aggression, withdrawal and unhappiness are some emotional and behavioural problems that may also occur.  

Things to do to help siblings

  • Encourage siblings to send drawings and cards, or texts and messages to their brother or sister, talk on the phone and visit the hospital (when possible)
  • Keep siblings fully informed and encourage questions and open communication of their feelings 
  • Reassure your other children they are loved and important to you 
  • Set aside special time each week with each individual sibling and label it, eg: “Mum and Billy time.” This one-on-one time can often be decided by your child – go to the park, visit a café for a milkshake, etc.
  • It may help to schedule at the same time every week, so it’s predictable for them. If this is not possible due to the unpredictability of cancer treatment, consider a ‘Plan B’ (e.g. FaceTime catch-up instead)
  • As much as possible, maintain a relatively normal routine at home; minimise disruptions to family functioning 
  • Create a question box or a journal where they can write questions and you will respond
  • Keep up your normal discipline strategy (making sure they are applicable to all of the children in the family, including the child patient) 
  • Try to organise times when you can give siblings individual attention; even 10- 15 minutes of discussion, play, or a story at bedtime can help siblings feel more secure 
  • If possible, avoid exposing siblings to extremely distressing times for the patient, when possible, discuss potential difficult times in advance 
  • Ask a friend or relative to stay in your home, rather than send a child elsewhere 
  • Monitor the coping of siblings throughout treatment; look for changes in appetite, sleep, mood and behaviour; check school progress regularly with their teachers 
  • Medical play may help children understand their siblings' treatment and feel included in the hospital experience (you can ask the medical team about this)
  • Encourage involvement in support organisation activities (for example Camp Quality and Canteen

A child’s siblings may be asked questions about the illness by schoolmates or friends. Therefore, they need enough information to answer these questions. It may be helpful to anticipate questions or comments and discuss them with your children. 

Further support is available to siblings of patients by the social worker or psychologist on your care team. 

Last updated Tuesday 14th May 2024