Preparing Siblings for Surgery

When a patient undergoes surgery, his or her siblings may also feel afraid, worried or confused. Often, they are afraid simply because they do not know what to expect and may imagine the worst. They will also have to deal with being away from one or both parents, missing their brother or sister, or having to stay with other family or friends. The following are some of the common feelings siblings may have during this time:

  • being lonely
    They miss having their brother or sister to play with and their parents around to care for and comfort them.
  • being left alone
    If they are not told about what is happening, brothers and sisters may feel like they are not important. They may worry about who will take care of them and may assume their needs will not be met. Who will feed them? Who will make sure they get to and from school? Who will make sure they are safe at home?
  • jealousy
    Brothers and sisters often wish that they were the ones getting all the attention or presents from family and friends, and become resentful and even jealous of their sibling.
  • guilt
    Siblings may feel bad for having mean thoughts about their brother or sister, or may even feel like it is their fault their brother or sister is in the hospital. They might feel guilty for being healthy, when their brother or sister is ill.
  • fear
    They might think they can “catch” something from the sick brother or sister. They may be afraid the sick child will not get well or will not ever come home.

Preparing for Surgery

When it comes to explaining surgery to the patient or his or her siblings, we believe that honesty is the best policy. Caregivers should include siblings in conversations about the surgery–in words they can understand. It is important that siblings know why their brother or sister is going to the hospital and that another responsible adult will be caring for them while their sibling is at the hospital.

Caregivers can also help siblings by:

  • Setting aside private time with the siblings at home so that they can get some special attention.
  • Reading books about going to the hospital with the entire family.
  • Giving the siblings many compliments and hugs. Taking extra time to notice good school work or jobs done at home goes a long way to providing siblings the support they need during stressful family times.
  • Giving the siblings the choice of visiting their sibling if he or she will remain in the hospital after the surgery. If they choose to visit, help psychologically prepare them for what to expect (i.e., sights, sounds, feelings).
  • Letting the siblings’ teachers know what is going on at home so that they can be on the look out for changes in mood or behavior, in addition to offering encouragement, praise and support.  Caregivers may also speak with teachers about modifying homework assignments in order to decrease stress for entire family.
  • Letting the child at home know that it is acceptable to be afraid and to cry.
  • Keeping care routines at home as normal as possible.
  • Having children at home draw pictures or make cards to send to the hospital. The patient will love getting the “mail” from home and the siblings will feel connected to their brother or sister at the hospital.
  • Asking family and friends to help. Simplify family life as much as possible can help everyone feel more positive and calm.

Watch for Warning Signs

The following are the most common signs that a child is under stress. While each child may display signs of stress differently, signs may include:

  • eating changes (eating less than usual, eating more than usual, or being picky about what he or she will eat).
  • sleep changes (sleeping more or less than usual, difficulty falling asleep or difficulty sleeping alone).
  • not wanting to talk or be with family members.
  • “too good” behavior.
  • need for a lot of hugs and attention.
  • doing things to get in trouble and get attention.
  • saying they feel sick too.