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The Effects of Growing Up with Sick Siblings on a Developing Child

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In Australia, 15 per cent of children under 16 is affected by chronic illnesses with an average of 770 children under 15 years diagnosed with cancer each year. There are studies on the development of ill children, yet it is often forgotten that living with ill children affects siblings too (Vanderwerp, 2011). Healthy siblings are susceptible to being forgotten, neglected which can bring negative effects and thus it is important to acknowledge their experiences to offer appropriate support. This review aims to understand the effects of growing up with ill sibling from the perspective of cognitive, developmental, emotion and social psychological discipline.

Growing up with siblings affected by chronic illnesses often bring problems with a child’s emotional regulation. The lack of parental availability reduces the child’s opportunity to develop a healthy attachment. Bowlby’s developmental theory of Attachment emphasises the importance of a strong relationship between the child and their caregiver, suggesting that the quality of attachment influences a child’s psychological functioning. Brumariu and Kerns (2008) assessed the relationship between attachment patterns and a child’s anxiety level, finding that children with secure attachments were better at regulating their emotions using constructive coping strategies than insecurely attached children. Although the study is only representative of a mother-child relationship, Esbjorn, Bender, Reinholdt-Dunne, Munck and Ollendick (2011) also revealed insecure attachments were associated with the development of ineffective emotion regulation of their participants. Having a secure attachment allows a child to practice relative functioning (RF), the cognitive ability to understand themselves and others with their internal mental states. With RF being critical in a child’s emotional regulation ability, infants with insecure attachment have trouble regulating their emotions, negatively associating with symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Living with a sibling suffering from health conditions also extend out to a child’s school experience. It can negatively affect a child’s education for numerous reasons. In the perspective of Social role theory, siblings face a high number of role transitions that involve taking on new tasks and feeling as if they must simultaneously take on the role of a parent and a child. As suggested by Bandura’s social learning theory, children can learn to feel stress and anxiety from the situation (Bandura, 1971) by observing their parents. Prchal and Landolt (2012) found that almost all participants of their study (n=7) reported struggling in concentrating during class and homework as they were constantly distracted by worries about their sibling. However, the effect was temporary. Although the study was limited in that it had a small number of participants, various studies found stress does induce a deficit in the way our brains retrieve memory as it hinders the transfer of knowledge and reduces cognitive flexibility in problem-solving.

Growing up with a sibling affected by a chronic illness influences the personal and social development of a child (Williams, 1997). Siblings with sick siblings are at risk for reduced emotional support from both parents and peers and developing feelings of isolation and loneliness. Children experiencing such negative emotions have been reported in a study to hold ‘lower self-concept’ (Murray, 2000). However, the findings on the development of self-esteem and the concept of self are mixed. Williams (1997) found from a review of 40 studies that there were no differences between the healthy siblings and the comparison group. Rather, the development of self-esteem and in turn peer relations of a child was affected by factors of the illness their siblings and their already established social relationship. Siblings who perceived their abilities to communicate about the sibling’s illnesses as poor were more likely to report discomfort in social relationships, whilst those with a well-established support system of peers found social interactions became a tool of distraction.

In conclusion, research provides evidence that children growing up with siblings with illnesses are associated with psychological, educational, personal and social developmental effects. Although several studies reported from the parent’s perspective, it often produced similar findings as studies conducted with the siblings’ subjective views. However, more research is needed to clarify how the effects can continue to influence the child’s future in terms of adult relationships and associations with psychological issues as adults. Improved sampling is also needed to address the existing shortcomings so the findings can be generalised more broadly to develop effective interventions for such children.


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