Chronic Illness and Sibling Relationships

B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional
Jen Rackley

When you have three children with medical problems, as I do, life can be a whirlwind of appointments, tests, and waiting at the pharmacy—not to mention the stress of the costs involved. But what do these illnesses do to the sibling relationship itself? Obviously it varies from family to family and how each child is raised. This is our story.

Ella, now 12, grew up with abdominal migraine, asthma, and hypotonia—low muscle tone—which required multiple visits to a physical therapist just so she could learn to walk. Ella’s twin sister Ava has numerous allergies and asthma, and big sis Melina, 15, struggles with ADHD and scoliosis.

Needless to say, having three children with assorted health issues can play a huge role in family dynamics.

For the most part, the kids are not jealous of one another, in terms of thinking one gets more attention than the other. Occasionally, one doesn’t want to pick up her sick sister’s homework from school, or Ella complains that her sisters are singing too loudly when she’s having a Migraine.

For us, establishing alone time with each kid when they are well has been an extremely important way to head off their jealousy. We also give them small things to do to make them feel like their role in helping their sibling is important. Even something as simple as writing their sibling a cute card (and then being praised by us as parents for that) reinforces that they can make a huge difference in the family.

My girls have a unique perspective that other children may not have. They each understand the concept of being sick and having an illness that is completely out of your control.

Here are some of the positive things my girls have learned as a result of dealing with chronic illnesses.

Compassion

Let’s be honest, you can’t teach compassion in a classroom. I believe real, pure compassion is learned by watching others struggle and coming up with ways you can help them. Our twins often remind each other to do their breathing treatments. One will come get me quickly if she thinks her sister’s asthma doesn’t sound good.

Recently, my oldest made Ella more comfortable during a weather-induced Migraine attack by bringing her a neck pillow, ice for her head, blankets, her favorite stuffed animals, and by making sure she was in a dark room. Do I know if they would have been as compassionate without these issues in our home? No. But I believe their level of compassion is strengthened by dealing with chronic illness at home.

Patience

It’s hard for me, as an adult, to remain patient sometimes, so imagine being a child and being told you can’t do something because you are sick, or worse, because your sister is sick. We have rescheduled birthday parties, changed plans, and canceled plans more times than I care to count.

Thankfully the girls have learned a “go with the flow” attitude that I never had as a child. Instead of lamenting what they can’t do, they more frequently than not find a different but fun activity that they can still do with the sibling that is sick. They learned early on that plans may change so they have to be flexible.

The value of good health

When you watch your sibling fight to walk, breathe, to undergo surgery, or go through a Migraine attack, you learn what’s important. You value the healthy days and celebrate them. On the days when everyone is well, it is a blessing from God and we all know that. The girls, instead of focusing on the sick days, celebrate the well ones. On those days, we always try to plan something extra special to do to make the day even more fun.

My girls are each other’s biggest cheerleaders, helpers, and are always there for each other if one needs an extra hug or shoulder to cry on. They relate to each other on a level that they may not have been able to if they hadn’t each had a chronic illness. It’s simply precious.

If you think your child is having issues with a chronically ill sibling, take it seriously. There are many resources out there that can help you find the right tools for your child.

Depending on the severity of the sibling’s illness, you may want to consider counseling. It can be helpful to start with the school counselor, who can, if necessary, refer you to a licensed therapist.

See more helpful articles:

Asthma at School: Does Your Child Need a 504 Plan?

Your Child’s Asthma Checklist For School

6 Ways to Help Your Child Deal With the Frustration of Migraine

The Difference Between Your Child's Head Pain and a Migraine Attack

Scoliosis

ADHD