Judy Grossman, DrPH, OTR
Dr. Judy Grossman is a family therapist and Associate Director at the Center for the Developing Child and Family at the Ackerman Institute, New York, NY.
We all know that sibling relationships run the gamut from best friends to worst enemies. Who hasn’t been jealous of a brother or sister? Although sibling rivalry is normal, it can become problematic when one child has learning difficulties, and the parents devote a great deal of attention to that child.
The situation you describe is not unusual. Siblings may become angry or jealous because of the attention—positive or negative—that the child with LD or ADHD receives.
Even in families where parents have the best intentions and conscientiously attend to the needs of each child, siblings of a child with LD or ADHD often report that they experience unfair treatment and are troubled by sibling relationships.
Disproportionate attention is not the only cause of sibling rivalry in families with a child with learning challenges. Resentment may also develop if non-LD siblings feel pressure to perform in ways they think will make the parents feel better.
Another common source of resentment comes from parents who unintentionally expect more from the non-LD/ADHD siblings, giving them additional responsibilities. In some families siblings become protective of the child with LD or ADHD and assume a caretaker role, but then become resentful for being in that role.
In the face of these situations sibling reactions may differ. The pain and resentment experienced by non-LD/ADHD siblings may not be apparent because they appear to be functioning well. In contrast, non-LD/ADHD siblings who feel rejected may “act out,” becoming withdrawn or hostile. If the situation persists unchecked, they may become alienated from the family and develop unhealthy high-risk behaviors to get the attention they crave from their parents.
Provoking a Reaction
Sibling issues may also stem from direct interactions between children. A child with LD or ADHD may provoke or overstimulate his siblings. The child with LD or ADHD may be impulsive, disorganized, or moody at home and the sibling’s response may be confrontational or distancing.
It is equally important for parents to recognize that the child with LD or ADHD may resent how easy it is for his sibling to complete assignments, make friends, excel in extracurricular activities, manage time, and receive praise from parents.
- Communicate. Really listen and acknowledge your children’s feelings. Even if you think the comments are unjustified, they reflect their experience. Encourage siblings to express the anger and frustration they may feel toward one another.
- Educate. Teach the entire family about LD or ADHD. Explain the practical effects of the disorder on everyday life. Share information about learning differences and explain why you spend more time with one child helping with homework, attending school conferences, and going to appointments. Describe the ways you give each child the support and attention he needs and deserves. Give examples to clarify misunderstandings. Focus the conversation on strengths and differences, not on problems.
- Address individual needs. Treat each child according to their individual needs, rather than worrying about treating each child the same. Siblings may differ significantly in personality, abilities, special attributes, and coping styles. Do not brush aside the needs of non-LD/ADHD children even if they seem less important or serious. Do not make comparisons. Instead describe the behavior that you see, how you feel, and what should be done.
- Avoid labels. Do not lock your child into a role (“problem child,” “good child,” “successful child”). If the family labels one child as the problem, it may lower expectations for that child and cause siblings to aim unrealistically high. It’s important not to place more demands on a sibling to compensate for the lack of achievement of his brother or sister with LD or ADHD.
- Reward good behavior. Don’t judge or referee. And don’t get into the habit of blaming one child; it’s difficult to know who provokes. Don’t reward fighting with attention; reward children when they get along. With older siblings, don’t interfere with their battles. The interactions can teach them about compromise, compassion, and connection. Handle problems with consistency and give clear messages.