The National Center for Learning Disabilities
By Dr. Laura Tagliareni
January 5, 2013
I’m a child psychologist, and I get this question a lot from parents of children developing typically as well as from parents of children with attention problems, chronic health issues and other special needs.
In every family with more than one child, each member will develop special relationships with one another, which may be influenced by birth order, gender and interests. From early childhood through late adolescence, it’s quite common for siblings to experience some form of rivalry, including arguing, name-calling and teasing.
This is developmentally appropriate whether or not a child has a sibling with learning and attention problems.
However, when dealing with a challenging issue such as hyperactivity and impulsivity, it’s important to remember that a family is a dynamic unit, so any stressful situation will impact every family member to some extent.
Be Prepared for a Variety of Emotions
Throughout childhood and adolescence, a typically developing child may face a range of emotions that involve having a sibling with learning and attention issues. For example, your son may resent the time you are out of the home at appointments with his brother, or may feel angry about not receiving as much of your attention as his sibling does.
A typically developing child may feel embarrassment over public incidents, concern about a sibling’s well-being, or pressure to be an over-achiever due in part to a sibling’s weaker academic performance.
How Much is Too Much?
Keep in mind that sibling rivalry is normal. However, when determining what actions to take with your typically developing child, consider that child’s age and the frequency and intensity of negative comments or struggles. If, in a momentary burst of anger, your son yells “I hate you” because his brother won’t share a toy, all that may be needed is a time-out and an apology.
But if you notice your son is struggling often or showing a concerning amount of emotional changes, you may want to consider taking him to a therapist, school counselor or a support group for kids who have siblings with special needs.
Finding peers with similar situations may help your child explore feelings and work on coping strategies. Ask your child’s teacher or doctor to help you locate a sibling support group.
Be a Good Communicator
Once you understand that one of your children has special needs, it’s a good idea to share age-appropriate information with your other son about these learning differences. Remember to talk up your child’s strengths to help his brother continue to think positively about him. Be open and honest. Children are less likely to feel uncomfortable or anxious if they understand something and feel empowered to ask you, the expert, questions.
To reduce friction between siblings, try to be consistent and set similar expectations with all of your children in terms of rules, responsibilities and discipline. When setting these expectations, it’s important to recognize each of your children’s strengths and not to burden your typically developing child with overly high expectations.
Another way to help reduce friction is to carve out a regular time each week to spend alone with your typically developing child. Giving your son some one-on-one attention may help cut down on jealousy about the time you spend working with his brother on learning and attention issues.
Look For Teachable Moments
Keep an eye out for flare-ups and other incidents you can use as opportunities to work on communication or to emphasize how challenging life can be for all of you, which is why you need to support each other.
Over time, with good communication and your unconditional love and support, your children may learn to be patient with each other and tolerant of differences. These values may deepen sibling relationships, which are everlasting.
Dr. Laura Tagliareni is a pediatric neuropsychologist in New York City and a clinical instructor at NYU Langone Medical Center. She works with children and adolescents facing a broad range of developmental difficulties, complex medical conditions, emotional challenges, and learning differences in her private practice. Areas of expertise include comprehensive neuropsychological and psychoeducational evaluations, individual and group therapy, bereavement and educational guidance and advocacy.