“In a way he’s a handicap and in a way he’s everything I’d ever want,” wrote a twelve-year old girl about her brother with learning disabilities. Sibling relationships in any family are complex and ambivalent, but when one child in the family has a handicap, even more intense feelings are aroused. According to one study (Trevino, 1979) this is particularly true in families where there are two children of the same sex who are close in age, or where the non-handicapped child is the youngest in the family or the oldest girl. Even more significant than birth order, though, is the family atmosphere and the attitudes that prevail.
Neglect can be a concern
There are three issues which seem to be of particular concern to siblings of youngsters with learning disabilities. The first of these is neglect—real or imaged. Actually, the child with a problem usually requires more than his equal share of parental time and attention. Transportation to therapists and tutors, help with homework and soothing hurt feelings after school represent an investment of time, money and energy for parents. Some I have known focused so much attention to their LD child that there was little left over for their other children. As long as they seemed to be getting along all right, they were left to grow “like topsy”—until they began to imitate their LD sibling, to get their share of equal time, as it were. Only when they began to fail in school or became depressed did their parents realize the extent of their neglect.
Responsibility is a second issue affecting many siblings of children with learning disabilities. Parents tend to expect more from the child without problems. Good manners, appropriate social behavior and caretaking responsibilities may be taken for granted. Because they seem more capable, parents may rely on them to make life easier at home. At 12, Barbara became a miniature parent to her nine year-old brother. She took him with her when she went to play with friends and scolded him when he stayed up too late or didn’t do his homework. But eventually she resented the responsibility and so did her brother who already had two parents, enough for any child.
Even when parents are sensitive to the role of the well-functioning child in the family and don’t push beyond capabilities, siblings are likely to assume additional responsibilities on their own. Joey did. He walked the dog without being asked, conscientiously did his homework, and got up early to fix breakfast and get his brother ready for school. All this on top of his being Number One in his class. He worked hard to become the super-child in the familyÑ as if to compensate for the disappointment and frustration his brother was causing. But his drive to excel was exhausting!
Finally, responsibility for the future of the LD child is a matter of concern for sibling. “When my parents are no longer around, I’ll have to take care of her. Will I be able to handle it and how will it affect my own future life? Will my children have learning disabilities too?” These are only a few of the questions many children ponder, but may not express. They need to be dealt with openly by parents and/or professionals.
A third issue is the guilt that siblings of handicapped children feel so keenly. It is normal for children in any family to resent their sibling some of the time, and even wish them the worst. But when those fantasies become real, as in the case of a child with a problem that doesn’t go away overnight, the guilt can be overwhelming. Some children are even afraid to excel in school for fear of surpassing the LD child in the family; the guilt is too great. “Why him and not me?” they ask. Such children sometimes develop problems unconsciously to be more on a par with their sib.
Another source of guilt is the embarrassment and social discomfort of having a brother or sister who acts “different.” It is hard to explain to one’s friends why Billy acts so “dumb” or “weird” at times, particularly if one hasn’t really been told. Brothers and sister are not usually included in conferences about a child’s handicap and are left to guess or fantasize about what is wrong. With knowledge and understanding though, a boy or girl can become an unexpected ally and friend to his LD sibling.
Deal openly with LD problems
The following are a few suggestions for parents who have a child with a learning disability—and other children who may be suffering the consequences.
Discuss the problem openly with the other children in the family, encouraging questions and reactions. A sib’s learning disability is a fact of life to be dealt with in the family, not avoided. Family secrets only lead to denial and the pretense that things are not what they seem.
Acknowledge your own negative feelings as well as the natural resentment sibs may feel. It will help them to know they are not alone with their anger. And the recognition that it is hard to love, and even to play with, a sister or brother who is being “obnoxious” will alleviate some of their guilt.
Don’t try to discipline children equally. Fair doesn’t always mean equal. Children in a family need to know they are separate people with needs and capabilities of their own. But don’t be too harsh with the child without problems because “he should know better.” He’s a child too, after all, even though he may seem exceptionally mature for his years.
On a positive note, try to find ways for each child to gain recognition and a feeling of self-worth. A child who feels respected and appreciated will be able to appreciate others, even with handicaps.
Accepting parents a basic influence
Finally, the ways in which parents view and respond to their LD child is the most important basic influence on sibling reactions. Parents who are accepting of their child enable siblings to respond similarly. Having a child with a handicap affects the experience of each person in the family, but along with the frustration and difficult times, parents can offer each child opportunities for growth , understanding and love. With these, a sibling can honestly day, “He’s not heavy. He’s my brother.”
Dr. Osman is the author of the following books on learning disabilities: