When one child is in treatment for an illness, be it medical or psychological, there is an impact on the entire family system. Although there will naturally be an emphasis on meeting the needs of the child in treatment, there are also things that can be done to attend to all the children in the family during this time. Here are a few things parents can consider:
1. Make an effort to spend quality time with each member of the family
Remember that all relationships in the family, between the parents, and between each parent and child, are unique and should be fostered individually. With this in mind, set aside time together to play a game, go shopping, or even make dinner. The activity matters less than the intention. Keep the conversation on that child and make a point to ask about their interests. Also, ask if they have any questions or concerns about their sibling that you can answer for them. If so, be direct and non-alarmist in your answers. For example, “Yes, your sister is struggling to complete her meals right now. One symptom of an eating disorder
is anxiety around food choices. She is seeing a nutritionist to create a meal plan that will help her eat more regularly over time.”
2. Have a variety of emotional outlets for social support.
Don’t discuss your emotions with your child at length. This should be done with your spouse, confidant or therapist. However, you don’t have to be a robot. It is okay to show your children that you are sad or scared and that you are using coping mechanisms to take care of yourself and manage your stress.
3. Model good coping skills.
Perhaps Mom does yoga and goes to church. Maybe Dad reads the news and plays tennis with friends. Don’t just do these things, tell your kids how these things support your mental well-being. Use this as an opportunity to discuss different ways in which the kids can take care of themselves as well. You might say, “I have found it is important to take good care of myself when going through a stressful time. Reading before bed is one way I do that. What are some things you have found that are good for you?”
4. Consider ways to keep routines in place.
Keep having family meals, if this was part of your day prior to the illness. Maintain the kids’ schedules, including extra-curricular activities. Children appreciate stability, consistency, and predictability.
5. Don’t be afraid to let the children know what is going on with their sibling.
Keep them informed in a developmentally appropriate way. Be honest and reassuring. So for a young child, you might say “Mom and Dad are going to your sister’s doctor with her today. She is sick and is working on feeling better and needs our help to do that.” With an older child you can say “We’re going to your sister’s therapist today and we are working on improving our communication skills together. We think that this will help your sister feel more comfortable talking about things she is struggling with, such as her eating disorder
. We’ll let you know what we learn and whether it might be useful for you too.”
6. Enlist each child’s help in age-appropriate ways.
Kids often want to feel that they can contribute. Perhaps have them assist with extra work around the house. Or have them join in family therapy sessions to support their sibling directly. Engage children but be mindful to not overburden them with tasks. Listen to them and respect their boundaries about how much they can help.
7. Offer to get each child connected to their own therapist, if they wish.
Recognize that your child may be more willing to talk to a therapist, friend, or teacher than to you, and try to give them the space to seek the support that is right for them. You might say, “I understand things have been stressful at home and you might not want to talk about it with me, which is fine. I’m always here for you. I want you to feel supported. Who do you think you can talk to about this? Would you like to see a counselor who is just for you?”
Finally, be patient with yourself, your spouse/partner, and with your children. This process will be difficult for each of you in different ways. Attending to one another and maintaining relationships will help sustain a strong support network necessary for navigating this challenging time.