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This one is about: Sibling Stress?

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Taking Care of the Needs of the Other Children When a Sibling Goes to the Hospital

by Joanne Green

Once again you find yourself in the anxiety-laden position of preparing your child for cleft repair surgery. Once again you plan for a hospital stay.

You prepare your surgery-bound child. You read aloud books designed to prepare a child for the hospital. You pack special toys, "blankies", puzzles and games. You pack a walkman and a ton of favorite tapes. He is ready.

You prepare yourself for the long haul. You intend to stay by your child's side throughout the ordeal, and you pack accordingly. You have the paper-back you have not yet finished. You have your comfortable sweats and a comfortable old pair of sneakers. You are ready.

But what about your other children? Are they ready for this temporary upheaval in the family program? What can you do to make this experience easier for them?

Often when one of our children is "pre-surgical", we tend to focus most of our attention on the preparatory needs of that child. But the hospitalization of a sibling, and the incumbent unavailability of one of the parents, can be an unsettling experience for your other children as well. The one left behind at Grandma's house can be dealing with a wide range of emotions - many of which she probably cannot, or will not, articulate.

There may be feelings of powerlessness. An older sibling may want to protect a younger one, but feel unable to do anything, and, in fact, in many cases, effectively shut out.

Or there may be feelings of abandonment, particularly if the sibling is younger and has always counted on the older child's strength. Not only is the sibling and playmate whisked away, but at least one parent has been whisked away with him.

Finally (for the purposes of this essay, anyway) there may even be some feelings of jealousy, as one child seems to be getting a lot of attention while the other is shuttled off to Grandma's house. To combat the feelings of powerlessness, you should engage the sibling in the process as much as is possible. For instance, an older sibling may read to the hospitalized child by making audio cassette tapes of some favorite read-aloud books. The tapes can then be taken to the hospital along with the books for a read-aloud/follow-along, personalized story with a familiar and reassuring voice. Also, give your non-hospitalized child the phone number to your hospitalized child's room, along with parameters of acceptable hours in which to call. If your hospitalized child is asleep, you will be there to answer the phone if and when it rings. The important thing is that, if your child is worried, she does not have to wait for HER phone to ring. She has the power to get what she needs to calm her own anxieties. (Often just having the number is enough to empower the child. Many children choose not to use the number after they have it. Simply HAVING it relieves the feeling of powerlessness.)

Having the phone number available does much to lessen the feelings of abandonment as well. You may also try tape recording correspondence between your hospitalized child and non-hospitalized children. (Of course, if the hospital allows young children to visit, then visits can be arranged, but that is often not possible.) You may also want to make your non-hospitalized children a part of the team by giving them supportive tasks to do to aid in rehabilitation. For instance, one child may be responsible for picking up work missed in school. Or a non-surgical sibling may record the hospitalized child's a favorite TV programs (many hospitals do not carry cable channels) so that she may watch them after returning home.

Jealousy over the extra attention given to the hospitalized child is often more difficult to deal with because it most often presents itself in the form of behavioral acting out. Be sure to give ALL your children positive attention throughout the hospitalization experience. Spend some extra time one-on-one with each child before you go to the hospital, Even five minutes a day with each child will make a world of difference. While in the hospital, call your other kids, just to talk. Don't simply tell them how their sibling is doing. Go on from there and ask them about THEIR day. Show them that you still have a very real interest in the things going on in their lives. After you get home, find an opportunity to go out alone with your other kids - if only for an ice-cream sundae at McDonald's. Be quick to acknowledge that their support during this difficult time was invaluable to you, as well as to their sibling.

The family is a unique unit. When something affects one part of the family, every part is affected. Even though only one child goes to the hospital, all will be touched by the hospital experience. Let your other kids be as much a part of this family experience as they can, and likewise, the whole family will benefit.

-----------------------Joanne Green is the mother of three cleft-affected children. She is also the Editor of WIDE SMILES Magazine.

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