How to support a friend with a sick child

How to support a friend with a sick child

It's often hard to know how to support a friend with a sick child. But knowing you are there for them will be essential as they go through their journey 

If a friend is going through the nightmare of having a sick child it can be difficult to know how to help. Hospital stays and doctor's appointments may seem to take over their life, but your support is more important than ever as they navigate the hardest of times.  

Caring for a sick child, whether they’re born prematurely or have recently become ill, is both physically and emotionally exhausting.

"Being on a neonatal unit can be detrimental to mental health and wellbeing"

Peter Bradley, Director of Services at Bliss, which supports parents whose babies are born sick or premature, says: “Being on a neonatal unit can be detrimental to mental health and wellbeing. 

80 per cent of parents in our survey told us their mental health got worse after their time on the unit. They also tell us they feel guilty taking time for themselves, whether that’s taking a walk or going home to try and relax after a stressful day”. 

The best way to support a friend with a sick child is by providing specific offers of help, regular check-ins and a shoulder to cry on when needed. 

Give specific offers of help 

Preparing meals can be a great way to offer support

If you’re trying to support a friend, it’s easy to say “let me know if I can help”. However, the parent might not be able to instantly think of what they need. 

Instead provide concrete offers of support. If they have other children, offer to do school pick-ups or play dates. Cook some dinners which can be reheated or stored in the freezer.  

Peter says: “Time is often very tight for parents. Some practical suggestions are buying or preparing meals for them, cleaning, looking after any siblings and offering to help with transport to the unit”. 

Be there to listen 

Parents with a sick child often feel helpless. Make sure you are there to listen if they need to talk. Try not to minimise their concerns or compare it to your own experiences—unless you have been through something similar. It can be easy to try and offer words of comfort when you see a friend in distress. But choose your words carefully and try not to use meaningless phrases. Sometimes something like “I’m so sorry you’re going through this” is enough.

"Sometimes something like “I’m so sorry you’re going through this” is enough"

Ivana Poku, author of Motherhood—The Unspoken, says: “Simply showing you are there for them should they need anything is so important. It sounds like a cliché, but just a text showing support can be truly life-changing”. 

Remember important dates

Mark important dates in your calendar so you can remember to send a supportive message

Often if a child has a long-term health problem, they will require lots of treatment. Note down important dates, such as operations, scans and appointments. Send a message on the day to say you are thinking about them. 

Hospital life is busy, so don’t worry if your friend isn’t able to respond and don’t let this put you off messaging again. Even if they don’t get a chance to reply they will appreciate the thought. 

Ivana says: “Asking too many questions can be overwhelming for a parent. Showing emotional support is wonderful, but ideally in a way that doesn't add more pressure on parents”. 

Help them to look after themselves 

Supporting a friend with a sick child can sometimes mean helping them to look after themselves. A parent’s own health often gets sidelined when they are concentrating on their child.

"If they will be spending a long time in hospital, think about providing things like healthy snacks or a book or podcast to help them switch off for a few minutes"

If they will be spending a long time in hospital, think about providing things like healthy snacks or a book or podcast to help them switch off for a few minutes. 

If exercising is important to them, find ways to enable them to do this, such as babysitting their other children or spending half an hour with their sick child, if permitted. 

Don't try to minimise what they are going through

Rather than minimising your friend's experience by saying everything is ok, it's better to acknowledge how difficult your friend's situation is

It can be hard to know what to say to someone with a sick child and may be tempting to provide reassurances. However, phrases such as “everything is going to be OK” or “things happen for a reason” can sometimes sound quite hurtful. Instead, it’s better to acknowledge the enormity of the situation by saying: “I’m sorry things are so tough”.  

This advice still stands if the child goes on to make a full recovery. Many parents who have had a sick child experience subsequent trauma. Don't minimise that be saying "everything is fine now". Instead listen if they need to talk about what happened. Alternatively, suggest counselling if you think it's appropriate.  

Peter says: “Be aware of how they have been feeling and gently signpost to charities like Bliss and encourage them to reach out for support if they need it”. 

The most important thing you can do to help a friend with a sick child is to offer your support. And whether it's physical or emotional help, it’s sure to be appreciated and remembered for years to come.

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