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Tips and advice to help siblings cope with cancer

Spending one-on-one time

When a family member is diagnosed with cancer, it can be difficult for parents to spend one-on-one time with their children. One way to focus your attention and care is to schedule a weekly 30-minute session with your child or teenager. This will help them feel important, valued and understood.

If you have more than one child, you may need to alternate weeks depending on your energy levels.

A younger child may not have developed the thinking or language skills to describe how they’re feeling, but a play session can help the child to express feelings, make sense of events, and understand the world. They may:

  • act out a story with toys or puppets
  • use fantasy and dress-up
  • draw or paint
  • play games
  • talk about their experience.

During a play session, comment on what they’re doing using empathy or observation, which will let them know that you are interested in what they are doing, saying and feeling. They may play on their own or invite you to play with them. Avoid asking questions or correcting your child. This time is for them to lead the way. Their play may reveal an inner world that you may never have known about from what they say.

It’s common for teenagers to prefer spending more time with friends, but they may like to visit a favourite cafe, go for a walk, watch a movie or listen to music with you.

Maintaining discipline

The issue of discipline is a common concern for families dealing with cancer. Maintaining the family’s usual boundaries and discipline during this time can strengthen your children’s sense of security and their ability to cope.

Keeping up children’s chores, encouraging good study habits, calling out inappropriate behaviours, and sticking to regular bedtimes – all require continued and ongoing supervision from adults.

It can be hard enough to maintain family rules when you’re fit and healthy, let alone when you’re dealing with the emotional and physical effects of caring for someone with cancer. Some parents say they feel guilty for putting the whole family through the stress of cancer, so they don’t want to keep pushing their children to do homework and chores.

Some children may misbehave to get the attention they feel they are missing. It’s okay to bend the rules occasionally, but try to keep to your family’s boundaries as best as you can. Let teenagers know that the usual rules apply for curfews, drug and alcohol use, and unsafe sex.

Although some flexibility may be reasonable at this time, a predictable set of boundaries and expectations can help to maintain a sense of normal life and will be reassuring for children and young people.

Encouraging children to help

When a family is dealing with a cancer diagnosis, children may need to take on extra responsibilities. If your children feel they are being useful, it can increase their self-esteem because it shows that you value and need them.

Young children can help with simple tasks (see box on this page for ideas). With older children and teenagers, it’s reasonable to want them to help more around the house, but talk to them about it first. It’s important to negotiate tasks with teenagers – avoid overloading them and try to share tasks fairly among all family members. Jobs that need to be done are not necessarily obvious to them, so discuss priorities and how tasks can be divided up.

When asking teenagers to help, keep in mind that it is age-appropriate for them to spend time with their friends. Missing the opportunity to socialise with their peers can make them feel resentful at a difficult time and affect their self-esteem.

Helping around the house: the internet is a good source of information about appropriate jobs around the house for children of all ages. Try searching for “age appropriate chores”. Some possibilities include:
Ages 2–4: • put toys into toybox • put books back on shelf • put clothes into dirty washing basket
Ages 4–8: • set table • match socks • help make beds • help dust • help put away groceries
Ages 8–12: • make bed • feed pets • vacuum • load and empty dishwasher • rake leaves
Over 12: • make simple meals • clean kitchen • clean bathroom • clean out fridge • wash and hang out clothes • wash dishes • wash car

Staying in touch

If you live in the country and need to travel for treatment, or if you have extended hospital stays, you may be away from your family for long periods. In some cases, both parents may need to travel to a major hospital and leave the rest of their children with family members or friends. The following tips may help you stay in touch. They might also be useful if you don’t need to leave home but want extra ways to communicate with your kids.

  • Ask your kids to do drawings and take photos to send to you.
  • Set a time to call home each night when you’re away, then read a favourite story together over the phone or via video calling (e.g. Skype, FaceTime).
  • Write an old-fashioned letter. Kids love finding mail addressed to them in the letterbox.
  • Send an email or recorded message.
  • Leave notes and surprises for kids to find, such as a note in a lunchbox.
  • Connect through social media or personal blogs.
  • Use private messenger phone apps for one-on-one chats with teenagers.
  • If they’re able to visit, children can bring cards or pictures from home, flowers picked from the garden, or a toy to “mind” you in hospital

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