How To Balance Young Children's Needs During a Sibling's Hospitalization

As I mentioned in this recent post, giving time to your special needs child's siblings each day is important. But what happens when emergency strikes? How do you balance time with each of your children when a hospitalization or medical emergency comes into play?

This spring, our oldest son who has autism and ADHD was diagnosed with a rare condition that causes neuropsychiatric symptoms during any illness, including everything from the common cold to strep throat and from norovirus to pneumonia. He was hospitalized for two weeks during that time, and ever since, he has required multiple weekly specialist appointments, increased support and care, and schooling from home. As you might imagine, this changed our family landscape and we quickly found ourselves feeling like we were treading water.

Over the past few months, our family had to adjust to a new normal. It wasn't easy, but I hope what we learned – and shared below – may help your family!

At the Hospital

Walk your children through the hospital

Hospitals can feel scary, especially if you've never been to one before. Even the most wonderful hospitals can feel this way for both parents and children! Take the fear out of hospitalization by taking a walk with your children through the halls. Point out the places where they can play, get snacks, and visit with other children when accompanied by mom or dad. Introduce them to the doctors and nurses and share with them what they do to help their sibling feel better.

As you walk, allow your children to safely explore the wing or floor where their sibling is staying, to ask questions, and to talk about what they are seeing. Don't force them to go anywhere they do not want to go. Keep the invitation open to take a walk when they feel ready.

Explain what you can - honestly

Children want you to be honest with them. Gauge what is appropriate to share given their age and maturity, but always be honest. If an IV helps your child stay hydrated, then tell their siblings that is what the machine does. As parents, we can feel tempted to make things sound rosier than they are, but children can and will see through this. If they don't in the moment, they will later on. Trust me.

This doesn't mean you should go into graphic or upsetting detail with them. It does mean you should consider them as persons who deserve the truth. If their brother is not doing well, don't tell them he is. Say instead, "Your brother isn't feeling well and he may be in the hospital for a while, but he is being taken care of by wonderful doctors and nurses! I believe he will be ok, and we can visit him each day until he gets better. Do you have any questions you want to ask me about your brother or the hospital?"

Be open to their questions

Big or small, be open to their questions and offer them genuine answers, even if the answer is "I don't know." When Jack's brother and sister asked us when he was coming home, we did not know. At first, we told them dismissively, "He'll be home in a couple of days." But when a couple of days turned into several days and several days turned into weeks, my husband and I realized we should have been open rather than dismissive and answered honestly - we didn't know. When we changed our answer and shared it honestly with our children, they were more open to sharing their feelings, asking more questions, and processing their brother's hospital stay in a healthy way.

At Home

Unplug whenever possible

This may be the most challenging, but also the most important thing you can do for your children when their sibling is hospitalized. When you are with your children, be with them, not your phone. I was glued to my phone at first. I leapt for it every time it rang, beeped, or chimed. But over time, I realized I was distracted from, rather than focused on my little ones. When I started putting my phone aside for pockets of time, I found I was able to give our children more of my undivided attention, which both they and I cherished during those challenging weeks of Jack's hospitalization.

There are times when your phone must be on to receive important information about your child. In this case, keep the phone on. Reduce emotional attachment to it if you can, though, by setting it on vibrate and picking it up only when it is pertinent. You can return messages to friends and extended family members after this special time with your children is up.

Spend time with them 1:1

You can build in a special time to chat with them each day, take them out for a weekly "date" that's just for the two of you, or simply spend time with them, no words needed, such as on a walk or out playing out in the yard.

Invite them to talk about how they're feeling about their brother or sister's hospitalization, but don't push it. Be present and open to what they want to talk about.

Read together

If conversation or communication feels hard or emotional, read stories together. If you're looking for children's books on hospitalization, Boston Children's Hospital has a great list here.

Truly any book with rich ideas, characters, and imagination will do, though. Scientific Learning puts it well in this post. "Reading with your child can enrich family ties," they write. "It creates a time for children to express themselves as well as an opportunity for parents to show their willingness to listen. When we build a conversation around a book, we encourage our children to communicate with us." I couldn't agree more!