Living with a chronic illness can create many challenges for a child or young person. What is often neglected is the impact the illness can have on the whole family. Siblings of chronically ill children need careful consideration and active support so they too can reach their potential.
Research tells us that siblings of children with a disability or chronic illness are sometimes hidden in relation to having their need for support met. General themes around sibling needs can include, feeling invisible in social interactions with others, feelings of guilt, inability to recognise their own needs and internalising of family roles or living conditions. (1)
Schools can play a big role in supporting siblings of chronically ill children and young people. Ensuring they are recognised in their own right and are given time and support for their individual needs independent of their ill sibling could help in both the short and longer term.
Practical things school staff can do to actively support siblings of sick children:
• Make allowances for homework assignments if necessary. The sibling may have been at the hospital all evening or simply feel too worried or anxious to apply themselves to the task.
• Do not expect siblings to be the go-between when sending work or information home. Some siblings may dislike this responsibility while others may be happy to take textbooks home.
• Teachers can email work assignments and tasks or make them available via the school learning platform.
Who Can Help
• School staff should take active responsibility for managing the support required by the chronically ill child and not rely on the sibling to ‘help out’ or have expert knowledge.
• SENDCOs can raise awareness across the school of the needs of chronically ill children and their siblings
• Some siblings may appreciate talking to others who are going through the same experience. Check with the sibling if this would be helpful and sensitively put siblings in contact with each other.
• Talk to the sibling. Ask them how they are doing, do not always focus attention on the sick sibling.
• Be vigilant to changes in behaviour and act quickly to find out the cause. Provide support if needed.
• Avoid sending centrally generated absence letters, they can cause families additional stress.
• Investigate school absence as per school protocol being sensitive to the additional strain a chronically ill child has on a family. Discuss how the school can support good attendance at school.
• Siblings may feel socially isolated if they're unable to attend social events away from school while parents / carers are looking after the sick sibling. Talk to the family to see if the wider school community can offer support.
• Some chronic or acute medical conditions can result in prolonged hospital admissions. In many cases one parent will stay with the sick child in hospital. This can impact on the emotional wellbeing of the well sibling. Talk to families to find out what support the school can offer during these challenging times.
- Glass Children: The lived experiences of siblings of people with a disability or Chronic illness Imogen Hanvey, Aida Malovic, Evangelos Ntontis. Published 2022. (1)