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When a Sibling Is Seriously Ill

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Siblings can be many things: friends, allies, role models — and let's face it, sometimes they can just be annoying.

But when your sibling has a serious illness, it adds another dimension to your relationship — and to your life. You may find yourself juggling some pretty intense and confusing emotions. You're not alone in feeling this way, and it's important to take care of yourself during this stressful time.

"How Could I Be Feeling This?"

The teen years are a time of growing independence and changing relationships with parents. Having a sibling with a serious illness adds even more loops and layers to the emotional roller coaster.

At times, you may feel worried about your sibling and about your parents and other caregivers. At other times, you'll probably feel angry, jealous, stressed out, or abandoned — and you may feel guilty about having these emotions, even though they're perfectly natural.

If your sibling's illness or treatments have obvious side effects like hair loss or behavioral changes, you may even be embarrassed about the way he/she looks or acts.

These emotions (and the many others you'll feel) are perfectly natural. They don't make you a terrible brother, sister, or person — just a normal human being.

Here are some of the strong, sometimes conflicting, reactions most teens have to a sibling's illness:

  • worry that a sister or brother will die or become permanently disabled
  • fear of "catching" the sibling's disease
  • guilt about being healthy and able to enjoy activities that your brother or sister can't
  • worry about not being able to go on vacation or play on a travel team
  • anger because parents are devoting most of their time and energy to your sibling
  • worry that no one in the family cares about you or feeling neglected because family members spend so much time focused on the sibling who is ill
  • resentment when your brother or sister doesn't have to help out or do chores
  • resentment that the family has less money to spend because the sibling is sick
  • wishing that things could be the way they were before the illness
  • guilt about being mean to the sibling in the past
  • general worry or anxiety about an uncertain future

What You Can Do

Find support. If you find yourself getting swept away by negative feelings, try to be understanding of yourself and what you are going through. Accept that your feelings are natural and see if you can find support to help you avoid taking your fears and feelings out on yourself or your family. (And if you do slip up and lose your temper, forgive yourself, apologize, and move on. Everyone has trouble making sense of emotions sometimes, even adults.)

Talk to a parent or an adult you trust, and consider joining a support group — many hospitals and medical facilities have sibling support groups.

Write it out. Try keeping a journal of your feelings and thoughts, or compose songs or poetry about how you feel. Let yourself be totally honest and don't judge yourself for what you feel. If you are not much for handwriting, you can always create a password-protected document or (if you're not a writer at all), use art or karate or some other form of self-expression. Think of it as a safe way to vent and work through your feelings and release anger and stress safely.

Take time for yourself. Don't forget to take time for yourself to have fun, relax, and spend time with people who care about you. It's great to help the family — they really need you right now. But you don't need to be on call 24/7. Be sure to make time for yourself too.

Helping Your Family — and Yourself

Because of your age, you can be a big help to your family — you can cook, do household chores, run errands, babysit, and help out in ways little kids can't. Doing these things can help you feel good about yourself: you can really make a difference. In fact, many teens whose siblings battled a serious illness say they emerged feeling stronger for it.

Taking an active role as a caretaker can be character-building. It can help you gain maturity, self-esteem, an increased awareness of and empathy for others in similar situations, and make you feel closer to your family.

Being able to help also lets you feel more in control when things get crazy. But being able to help can have downsides if you feel like parents depend on you too much or take your help for granted.

Sometimes the expectations get too great and your family responsibilities start to get in the way of your well-being or schoolwork. That's when it's time to speak up so you don't get trapped in a cycle of resentment and guilt. If you're not ready to talk directly to your parents, talk to the social worker at the hospital, your school counselor, the parent of a friend, or your coach.

If you start to feel overwhelmed by everything you're expected to do (or the things you think you should do), talk to your parents and try to let them know what you're feeling. Tell them you want to help, but you're worried about school and other responsibilities. Work together to find ways to compromise so you can still help out but also stay connected to friends, sports, and other activities that are important to you. If you can't talk to your parents, talk to a trusted adult about what you can do.

It can help to remember that, even if parents and siblings are too busy and stressed to acknowledge it right now, your help and support mean a lot to them.

Other Ways to Cope

Even if you feel OK, any family living with a child with an illness is under stress. Here are some ways to help you cope:

Stay informed. Knowing the facts about your sibling's illness and what your brother or sister is going through can help you avoid unnecessary fears. It can also help you get a handle on what's happening. Ask questions of your sibling, parents, and the medical staff. Your parents might not be sure about how much they can open up to you, so help them understand that you want to hear and be heard.

It's common to be concerned about catching a disease. Most childhood illnesses like cancer, sickle cell disease, diabetes, epilepsy and kidney disease are not  contagious . If you are concerned about carrying a genetic risk for an illness, ask your parents if you can talk to a genetics specialist.

Designate a "go-to" adult. Find an adult (maybe a teacher, aunt, or uncle) to lean on for support and advice when you need something and your parents aren't available. Even though you're no longer a kid, everyone needs someone to turn to. Having an adult to talk to can help you process what you're experiencing.

Stay positive. Remember, you deserve time to relax, have fun, and be silly. So spend time with people who care about you and do things that are relaxing and fun. Sometimes, just hanging out with your brother or sister and watching a movie or playing a board game can make you feel OK again. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself both inside and outside your family.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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