Learning Disabilities and Sibling Relationships

By: Joan M. Azarva

In our hectic 1990's world, what with kids, homework, extra-curricular activities, two-career or single-parent households, etc., we seem to face an ever-increasing challenge to merely make it through each day, much less worry about promoting sibling harmony. Throw a learning-disabled child into this mix, and sibling harmony seems to be an even more elusive, not to mention frustrating, objective. My best description of parenting a child with a learning disability is that it's like driving a car on ice; one can skid at any moment, and the car may not necessarily turn in the same direction as the steering wheel. Therefore, letting sibling relationships "develop naturally" can be quite a risky proposition. Given the dynamics of a household with a learning-disabled youngster, it is even more important then to think proactively in terms of sibling relationships.

From the time my two boys were quite young (they are 3 l/2 years apart), it was important to my husband and me that they respect one another. We knew we could not "legislate" this respect; it would have to be generated by their mutual actions. A book that was most influential in shaping my philosophy of child-rearing was Children: The Challenge by Rudolf Dreikurs, M.D. Reading that book made me understand the value of letting children settle their own petty squabbles (after all, how often do we really get a true story from either sibling?), interfering only when a child is in physical danger, imposing "logical consequences" as a result of inappropriate actions, and following through with both promises and threats. But just as importantly, the book reminded me of the theory of "self-fulfilling prophecy" -- that is, if we think of our children as bad, that is what they are likely to become. Conversely, if we let our children know that we trust them, value their opinions, and consider them a valuable cog in the family wheel, they will rise to the heights we expect.

So, in practical terms, how did I implement these principles? Matt, my son with a learning disability, was old enough to help out when his brother was born. I frequently reminded Matt how lucky his brother Jeffrey was to have such a kind, caring playmate. How many brothers would turn on a baby's mobile in the morning and smile and play with the baby when he awoke? How many brothers would push their sibling so carefully in a stroller or share their toys with them? Letting Matt know I thought he was a considerate, thoughtful brother turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy - as the years progressed, and school became increasingly frustrating, Matt viewed Jeffrey as his friend and ally when times got tough. (There were definitely times, too, when Jeffrey was his scapegoat, but as you read on, you will see how we prepared Jeffrey to deal with this.)

So... what about Jeffrey? For years we worried that Matt's frustrations and tantrums would either: A) be a role model for Jeffrey to imitate or, B) turn Jeffrey off to the extent that he would dislike his brother. So in dealing with Jeffrey, we were careful from the start to be honest. We let Jeff know that although his brother was intelligent, he had learning problems that often made school frustrating , and that we needed to support Matt through these tough times. If we played a family game that involved spelling, such as Scrabble or "ghost", Jeffrey knew in advance that it would be unkind to criticize Matt's mistakes. In private, just as we praised Matt, we told Jeffrey what a wonderful brother he was and how lucky Matt was to have someone so patient and understanding. I don't think either of our sons knows to this day of our private ministrations to the other.

So, we set the stage early for closeness by letting each son know we had faith in their character and judgment to do the right thing regarding their sibling. Not to say, that everything was/is always rosy - remember, our car is on ice! But when there are arguments, the boys have learned how to negotiate a settlement themselves. Neither one is comfortable being angry with the other for long, and before you know it, an apology or a kind gesture is in the works. At this point, we praise the children together, letting them know how proud we are that they are such "good brothers". The phrase "good brothers" is used frequently in our house and is a characteristic that spills over outside the home. We are frequently told by friends, coaches, counselors, etc. how remarkable it is that our boys "watch out" for one another. And of course, that reinforces our belief that what we are doing with the boys proactively, regarding sibling relations, is working.

One other important factor in this equation, and one that should not be overlooked or underestimated is the importance of appreciating each child for his/her own qualities. Let your kids know you appreciate them for their differences - that it would be boring if they were all alike. Your child with a learning disability surely has strengths - be they social, athletic, scholastic - and you need to capitalize on those strengths through extra-curricular activities or even a part-time job, if your child is older. A child derives self-esteem from what he does well, and that esteem will hopefully allow him to ride over the "rough spots" when dealing with his weaknesses. Above all, avoid comparing your children in front of them. Never say, "Jeffrey keeps a neat room, why can't you be like him?" or "Look how much time and effort Jeffrey puts into his homework -can't you do that?" In any family where siblings constantly bicker and resent one another, I would venture to guess that they were frequently asked to "live up" to the role model set by their "perfect" sibling!

While we're on the subject of appreciating differences, I think it's important to address the issue of report cards. In our house, our sons were always told that report cards were "their business only", and that they did not have to share their report card with their sibling if they didn't feel like it. We have report card discussions with each son privately - it is not dinner table conversation. They are also told that they are competing with no one but themselves, and that we, as parents, are looking to see that they have maintained hard work and consistent effort; the grades are secondary. As a result, there is no competition between our sons. When they receive good grades, we emphasize how good THEY must feel, having worked so hard and achieved so well; we do not tell them that WE are proud of them for their grades, as that would imply that we were NOT proud of them if they received an inferior report card. We try to put the emphasis on being responsible and planning ahead where school work is concerned.

And last but not least, try to keep a sense of humor. We tease both our sons (now 16 and 13),in a loving way, about their personality quirks, and they in turn point out ours. We sometimes play a game in the car called "Who Would Say This?" at which time one of us will come up with a saying that characterizes a personality trait (not always flattering!) of another family member, and the others have to guess who would say that. For example, thinking of our compulsively- on-time son Matt, he might say "Come on, we only have 10 minutes, we're going to be late!" Or my neat and orderly husband who might say, " What idiot moved a paper on my desk?" It's funny how we all have our little "idiosyncrasies", and this game helps us laugh at them as a family, with no particular person being singled out.

Yes, there's no doubt that living with a learning disability can make family life quite turbulent. But there are certain "structures" you can put in place within your family that will go a long way toward fostering genuine affection between siblings. And maybe a little luck is involved as well!

Joan M. Azarva Learning Strategist, Montgomery County Community College
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