Now that both my children are independent adults, and after years of being immersed in these issues as both parent and advocate, I feel confident in offering a little advice when it comes to sibling and family issues.
Acknowledge the Problem
The first step in alleviating or overcoming a problem is to acknowledge the problem in the first place. When it comes to sibling issues, the easiest way to do this is to talk to your child (or children) without LD. Sit down with him or her, just the two of you. Ask about any problems, or if there is any sense of unfairness or injustice. Your child may very well say “no.” After all, that child lives with a sibling with LD and surely understands on some level that their sibling needs a little more attention. But even if the child really does understand on some level, there will be other levels that are less rational that nag at them and tell them over and over that “you are being treated unfairly.” It is that less rational feeling that you need to uncover and address.
Determine the Type of Child
Siblings of children with LD behave in varying ways toward their brother or sister. Some react with anger and resentment. Some feel an obligation to compensate by becoming the perfect child. Some will try to act as a “third parent” and develop a domineering attitude.
Some siblings feel guilty or ashamed of bypassing their brother or sister in certain skills. They may feel they are doing something wrong by being able to do things their sibling cannot…. Parents may unconsciously reinforce these feelings of guilt by feeling that they must withhold praise for the non-disabled child for fear of hurting their special needs child.
Do not be afraid to praise all your children for real accomplishments, and certainly do not be afraid to talk about the sibling’s disability openly and honestly.
Explain, Explain, Explain
After so many meetings with doctors, neurologists, school psychologists, and teachers, you may feel you know every detail about your child’s LD. However, it is all too easy to assume everyone else in your family has the same level of knowledge you do. But do they?
Have you told yourself that your other children are too young to understand? Maybe you’ve decided to wait a year or two to tell them what is going on with their brother or sister. Maybe you’re afraid to put any kind of label on the disability, for fear your other children might view their sibling differently, or that friends may bully and attack the child with special needs.
The failure to explain what is going on can pile up the resentments among the non-disabled children. Their need for information about their sibling’s disability is significant. Share the information openly. Without this information, they may develop assumptions that are inaccurate and blown way out of proportion. So do your best, even if the diagnosis is still a little vague. Anything is better than silence.
Spending Time Together
Another helpful remedy for sibling jealousy is to break away, in a forceful way, from the endless, obsessive focus on the child with LD. Take a day or a weekend and spend it with one of your children without LD. If you have more than one, do the same for each. Do something the child without LD wants to do—a movie, a museum, a favorite store: it doesn’t matter. This is that child’s time with you, and the memories and good feelings engendered by this one simple act can last a lifetime.
Listen AND Hear
Some children will not hide their sense of injustice. Some will bring it up endlessly, to the point of making everyone miserable. Others will be more level-headed about it. They may bring it up occasionally, either in a fit of anger or in a serious “please listen to me” tone. If that happens, this is the best time to really hear what your child is saying and have the heart-to-heart talk.
I advise parents to avoid any off-the-cuff unhelpful remarks such as “maybe you would like to have disabilities for a change,” and, instead, really try to listen, accept, and understand your child’s concern, even if you don’t believe it is legitimate or has a basis in reality. The fact is, it is real to that child.
Encourage your children without LD to discuss their concerns and problems openly, and how they experience having a sibling with special needs. At the same time, don’t let this go on to a point of absurdity. Allowing them to vent once in a while does not mean they have permission to do it every day, all day long. Once you have explained the situation, and really listened to the concerns, it is time for life to go on.
Excerpted from the book, The Forgotten Child: If She is Special, What Am I?, by Anne Ford with John-Richard Thompson; Capri Island Publications, 2015.