Special Siblings

By: Stephen Rothenberg

Sibling rivalry is one of the most common and most vexing problems that parents bring to psychotherapists. Rivalry among siblings reaches back thousands and thousands of years, at least to the times of Cain and Able. Children are constantly attempting to get parents to choose which child they love the most. And parents are constantly trying to shuffle out of situations where they feel they are being asked to choose. "OK, who started it?" — how many times have parents placed themselves in the position of judge, only to end up feeling helpless and confused, confronted with: "'He did!' 'No, she did!'" And, if one sibling feels that you have sided with the other, the battle intensifies. Guerilla warfare may often ensue. It can become quite intense, reaching the level of what I call "sibling savagery."

Having a new brother or sister can be a wonderful new experience. It can also upset the apple cart. I have heard an analogy made to a husband who decides to bring home a second wife. He explains to his first wife that, "because I love you so much, I have brought home another wife." To stretch this example a little further: "and she is going to need some extra attention, I'm sure you'll understand." That is the experience of the sibling of a child with learning or attention problems — "not only am I going to have to share my parents' love, I'm supposed to be understanding about getting less."

Whenever children come into my office, they can cite how many times in their lives their parents have treated the other child better. In fact, I have had interviews with adults who, after comparing notes, all felt that the parents treated the others preferentially. When children can always remember what you have done for the other but infrequently what you have done for them, they're suffering from selective memory deficits. Parents also tend to become pulled into this argument, feeling a need to defend themselves and proving that they give to each child equally. Attempting to dole out your love and attention equally all of the time is unnecessary and impossible! This competition for precious parental resources intensifies when there is a child with special needs within the family system.

"Attention" deficits and parental guilt

The first thing parents need to realize is that a child with learning, attentional, and/or behavioral problems does require additional attention. Therefore, many siblings suffer from an "attention deficit" of another sort. They see the time and energy spent with the other sibling and may experience some intensely jealous feelings. It does not matter that the child with different needs may be drawing a lot of negative attention, it is attention nonetheless. Children do not tend to make distinctions between positive and negative attention. Many parents feel that they need to compensate for this and to "even things out." This is especially tempting when your child is telling you how much you do with their sibling and don't do with them. It is important to avoid falling into this trap. You have to admit to yourself that you do need to spend extra time with your child who has some extra needs. You also need to know that you will not necessarily be able to even this out. What you can do is allow your other child(ren) to express how they feel. They need to know that you understand what it is like for them and how unfair it can feel at times. Sometimes saying, "Yes, I know it feels unfair when I have to spend time helping her with her homework and you have to do more on your own," can at least let your child know you understand.

Typical feelings of special siblings


As children perceive that their sibling is getting extra attention they may feel jealous and angry. One young girl once developed "learning problems" in reaction to her brother's actual learning disabilities. She viewed this as a way to gain attention. She felt that the way to compete for her parents' love was to have learning disabilities herself. Children may find other ways to let you know that they are angry. Because they may feel that it is unacceptable to express their anger directly, it may surface as angry acting out or regression to behaviors not seen for some time.


Some siblings, especially younger ones, may feel guilty or ashamed of bypassing their brother or sister in certain skills. They may feel that they are doing something "wrong" by being able to do things that their sibling cannot. Parents may also unconsciously reinforce this idea, feeling that it will hurt their special needs child if they praise the other. It is important to emphasize for each child their own "specialness" and to let the sibling know that it is OK to excel.


Many siblings, especially older ones, feel embarrassed by the behavior or difficulties exhibited by their special needs sibling. Even though they may have a decent relationship inside the home, a brother or sister may become more self-conscious about how others may view their sibling. Sometimes they are reluctant to invite friends over out of fear that their brother or sister will do something "dorky" that will embarrass them "forever." And, as I believe Mel Levine once said, "the primary task of the middle school years is to avoid embarrassment at all costs."

"Special" education

One of the most important interventions is education. Siblings need to be able to understand the difficulties and behavior of their brothers or sisters. We all tend to feel confused, helpless and angry when we confront behavior that we do not understand. I often involve siblings in family therapy sessions in order to help them to vent their feelings and to learn and understand about what are often confusing and annoying behaviors. Holding family meetings, so that all members have an opportunity to express their feelings and their needs, can aid this process. Of course, clear ground rules need to be established so that issues are aired in a constructive and positive atmosphere. Sibling therapy groups also offer a safe, accepting atmosphere for children to play, talk, and learn to cope with their siblings and their own feelings. They also find that they are not alone. Through this process, children learn to see the positive attributes of brothers and sisters as well.

If siblings of children with extra needs are given the opportunity to express their feelings, feel understood, and understand their brothers and sisters, then they will be more able to enjoy the special aspects of their relationship as well.

If the relationship is handled with sensitivity, the sibling of a child with special needs can develop an understanding and acceptance of others that might otherwise not be as available to him or her. They have the opportunity to see that "different" does not equal "inferior" or "bad." They can learn, by watching how parents respond to his or her sibling, that being different or having trouble doing things is OK. By viewing acceptance they can vicariously experience acceptance.

Children with siblings with special needs also have the opportunity to develop empathy and sensitivity to others. They have to learn, possibly earlier than other children, that the world does not revolve around them and that they are also responsible for others around them. Of course, this is difficult to do unless they feel that their more negative feelings are acknowledged first. If those feelings are acknowledged and the child feels understood, then it is easier to feel empathy with the sibling.

Since the sibling with special needs tends to receive more attention, brothers and sisters also learn to find ways to get their needs met. If they are taught to do this in constructive and appropriate ways, then they gain skills in asserting themselves that will last them a lifetime. If handled properly, their rivalry for attention can lead to positive and creative ways to gain attention for themselves. If they are given the sense that — even though they might not receive the same quantity of attention, they are still important and deserving of attention — then they can feel good about themselves and their own needs. Consequently, children can feel good about being able to attend to both their sibling and themselves. This should translate into the ability to value both self and others.

Siblings with special needs also tend to look at and interact with the world in different, creative ways. This too offers an opportunity for their brothers and sisters. They can learn to see things from another angle. They can gain a whole other perspective that they might otherwise not perceive. Much as looking through a microscope offers a chance to view another vibrant and unseen world — being able to look through the eyes of a child with learning or attentional differences offers a chance to see a whole other colorful and wonderful place.

About the author

Dr. Steve Rothenberg is a psychologist in private practice in Framingham, Mass. He runs a therapy program for children and families with attention and learning problems. Dr. Rothenberg writes a regular column on sibling relationships for the Learning Disabilities Association of Massachusetts newsletter.

Stephen Rothenberg (1997)