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Brothers and Sisters

By Mike Snyder

I've spent quite a few keystrokes chronicling how we've assessed and addressed our son's early education delays. But I haven't written much about his big sister and only sibling, our six-year-old daughter.

My daughter and I have been extremely close since the day she was born. She came out feisty, very alert and apparently angry. She wailed away while the nurses cleaned her up. Then, because the doctors were still attending to Mom, they handed her to me first. I looked down, put my face up to hers and said, "I know you." She immediately stopped crying, blinked a few times, then relaxed in my arms. It was an instant bond.

We're very alike in temperament, which sometimes makes me cringe. She's impetuous and quick to anger, but quick to forgive. Unfortunately, we also share a deep sense of entitlement.

She was about 19 months old the day her little brother arrived. We'd been prepping her, reading books like "I'm a Big Sister, Now," and telling her how special it would be. I thought it would go smoothly because she was very bright and seemed to grasp how her life would be changing. Not!

Blame was quickly assigned ... to me. She came into our bedroom, stood up on the bed and starting pointing her little finger at me. "You! You! You!" She very effectively dressed me down for literally five minutes. What could I do? Keep a straight face, take it like a man and console her when she was done.

Of course, we got calmed down and settled in. My son also shares the same sense of entitlement, along with a stubborn streak a mile wide, so my wife and I spend a lot of time refereeing disputes. Sibling rivalry, alive and well.

So I guess I should have seen it coming this summer. We kept pumping up my son for his appointments to assess his educational needs, telling him week after week that he would get to go play at his "special school." One day, when I picked up my daughter from summer day camp, she let me have it: Why did I keep spending so much time with her brother? It wasn't fair. I never did anything fun with just her anymore.

While that last accusation wasn't exactly true, the one-on-one time I'd been spending with my son had been noted and filed in the resentment folder. I wish I'd crafted an explanation in advance, or pre-empted the scene by explaining to her what we were doing with her brother. I know better than to underestimate a child's skills of observation and intelligence to draw conclusions.

I fumbled a little bit, telling her that her brother needed some "extra help" right now and it was my job to make sure he got all the help he needed. That was "not fair," in my daughter's tearful eyes, because I never gave her any extra help when she was her brother's age. Ah, yes, well ... I tried to explain that she didn't need the same kind of help that he did. I don't think I really got her to buy into it fully that afternoon, but her points were well taken.

I blocked off some Daddy-daughter time on the family calendar immediately. Now that she's going to first grade in a Fairfax County public school, which dismisses early every Monday afternoon, we have some time built in every week to do something special, like learn to ride her bike or go to a museum or something else fun. We take turns picking what to do. She's even trying to "help" educate her brother. (Lord help him, because she is a bossy one.)

How do you mediate sibling rivalry and juggle things when one child needs "extra help?"

By Mike Snyder |  December 4, 2007; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Child Development
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Can't speak on raising multiple children because I am currently pregnant with my second. But I can say that I had two brothers, one who was learning disabled. The LD brother is doing very well now but had a rough academic life. My point is that it is very hard to be the typical child in a family with a child who has special needs (even if the special needs are fairly minor). It is the old adage the squeeky wheel gets the grease. Whether the the special needs kids means to be the squeeky wheel or not, they get more attention. As an adult, you can say a lot of that attention is really not fun and it causes a great amount of stress and worry for the parents. And deep down parents, secretly appreciate their typical kids for adding less work, the typical kid does not see that. They see mom and dad spending more time, more energy, and more focus on their sibling. Even with two typical kids who no health problems, sibling rivalry is inevitable. Each child will always feel slighted in some way. The best thing to do is keep an open dialogue and make special time for both kids. It will probably take your daughter till she is a teenager or adult to fully understand that she still got dealt the better hand. But just be patient with her and keep talking to her about it. It will take a while to sink in but when it does, she will have a new appreciation for her own skills and talent and a sensitivity towards others less fortunate.

Posted by: foamgnome | December 4, 2007 7:59 AM | Report abuse

I have a question for you and others in this situation. I was reading a blog some time ago by a woman who has two children - one not disabled, and the other with pretty severe autism. In one entry, she was speaking about how she was thankful that she had a healthy child to take care of her disabled child after she and her husband passed on or were unable to care for him. This started a flurry of comments about whether or not it was fair to assume that the nondisabled child would be expected to take in and care for the disabled child for the rest of his life. Just wondering what everything thought on this.

Posted by: ME | December 4, 2007 8:31 AM | Report abuse

I think that's an unfair burden and would NEVER impose that kind of burden on my daughter. The best parents can do is have terrific life insurance/inheritance to pay for the care of their disabled child and hope the sibling can help.

Posted by: atb | December 4, 2007 8:39 AM | Report abuse

If a child is emotionally upset, no rationalization will get them to change how they feel. Emotions do not listen to logic, and if they did, it would be easy to explain why people fall in love.

Now, if you have a child that can verbally express her feelings without acting out,consider yourself lucky. You have a real gem there, Mike, and I think you have an excellent solution of spending 1 on 1 time with your daughter each Monday. All children have a craving to feel loved and the best way for a parent to show their love for their child takes time and attention. Affection works wunders too!

Posted by: DandyLion | December 4, 2007 8:41 AM | Report abuse

This started a flurry of comments about whether or not it was fair to assume that the nondisabled child would be expected to take in and care for the disabled child for the rest of his life.

Life is decidedly unfair. Live with it. I think the parents have an obligation to plan as well as they can to provide financially for their disabled child, but I think we all have a responsibility to take care of and help our family members, especially if they have a disability. I expect that my children will take care of each other if needed after my husband and I are gone. My 2 cents.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | December 4, 2007 9:02 AM | Report abuse

I was the big sister and my younger sister has a severe learning disability. My parents never wanted to make my sister feel badly and, on some level, I think they felt guilty for the genetic combination that caused her difficulties. That translated to cartwheels whenever my sister accomplished anything and mere nods of approval when I naturally excelled in school and in the community.

I vividly remember asking my mother "what gives?" when she and my father were ecstatic over my sister's "C" report card and shrugged when they saw I was on the Honor Roll again.

The message I got was that nothing I did was all that special -- I wasn't doing anything that other people couldn't do. The message my sister got was that she was supposed to be at my level. My advice to all families in this situation is to call a spade a spade. I wish someone had told me I was above average and really appreciated my accomplishments. My sister should have known that "average" didn't really exist in our household and she needed to just do as well as she could do and stop comparing herself to me.

Posted by: Emily | December 4, 2007 9:05 AM | Report abuse

We have been experiencing the same sort of behavior in our house during my 2nd daughter's evaluations. My little ones don't seem at all bothered by it because they spend most of her appointments in the playroom at Children's Hospital. They seem to like it there. My oldest is in school all day and I thought she was unaffected, but by the extra attention her sister is recieving while she is in school-silly me, she certainly noticed. It began with mystery illnesses and requests to stay home with us, and finally a blow up to "Why does she get everything!". We have explained what is going on to the best of our ability and started setting aside some additional one on one time. We have always had special days/times where my husband takes one of the girls and does something special, but it turned out she wanted a little more of that with me.

Posted by: momof5 | December 4, 2007 9:21 AM | Report abuse

This is so hard. We struggle with this same issues with our 4 1/2 yo typical girl and our 3 yo with autism. Lately, we have been telling our daughter that her brother needs extra help talking and learning to play. She gets so excited when he talks to her or wants to play with her.

Early on when multiple therapists were coming to the house, I would set a timer for 15 - 20 minutes for special time with my daughter doing whatever she wanted. Fortunately, she also loves to help bake and help with laundry, so we share a lot of moments during the day. My husband and I make a point of having "movie night dates" complete with ice cream sundaes with our daughter after our little boy is in bed. My husband and I each take her out separately occasionally and make it a big deal. I'm also fortunate to have my mom take care of our son while my daughter runs errands with me and helps me out "just the girls" in her words.

Also, a counselor I spoke with last year suggested putting her in a special activity just for her where she could shine. She did a summer ballet class and I am currently looking at gymnastics as she enjoys tumbling.

I do worry about the effects on her and we are doing the best we can, which I think is all anyone can do. My children actually get more of me than I think they would if ours was a typical household. I have spent a lot of time working with our son and trying to compensate for that extra time with our daughter. Our son is showing much improvement over this past year and I'm hopeful we can find more balance in the future.

Posted by: texasmom | December 4, 2007 9:55 AM | Report abuse

We have a daughter who is mildly on the autism spectrum. We don't think she will be in a group home and think she will live a fairly normal life. But we were hesitant to have a second child, (birth or adopted) for that reason. I don't think a child's mere existence should be about being their siblings care taker. That being said, we did get pregnant this fall and are expecting our second child. We, obviously, hope and pray that our second child is typical. We do have lots of life insurance and save a lot for both children. We figure if DD #1 does not go on to college, that money would be used as a down payment on a house for her. We will have sufficient life insurance for when we die. That being said, we do expect our typical child (and we hope they will be typical) to help see that their sister is treated right by the facilities and lend a helping hand. But frankly, I would expect that from any two siblings regardless of ability. I have a typical brother who frequently needs a hand and we work as a support system for the three of us. Why would you expect anything less from your own children. It is one thing to be the sole financial and physical support for a sibling versus being part of a support network. I also have nieces and nephews who will help out as well. In turn, we help our nieces and nephews through college. We are all one family and work for the good of the whole.

Posted by: foamgnome | December 4, 2007 10:19 AM | Report abuse

I think there's a big difference between a sibling being expected to be a caretaker and sacrifice their life for a sibling, and being an advocate, financial manager, etc. for a family member who might need help with those sorts of things.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 4, 2007 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Oh, it's never easy, is it? I guess I'm lucky because while my youngest is very much affected by autism and an immune system disorder that both require a lot of parental attention, my older child is mildly autistic and doesn't seem to make note of how much "extra" time our son gets. When she DOES notice a discrepancy, it's usually because of negative attention he's getting, or something no-fun he has to put up with (for example, she's more than happy to be packed off to school on the one Friday each month that our son has to stay home from school and get IV gammaglobulin!). Every once in a while, she'll demand some attention if she feels overlooked--just this weekend at church we praised our son for his good behavior (which involved just managing to get through the service without hitting anyone but himself and us and not drawing too much attention for inappropriate noise) and our daughter pointed out that SHE had been good too--angelic in comparison to her brother! But she seems to understand different standards based on different abilities, so that's all o.k.

On the other end of things, I have an older sister who is severely disabled. Growing up, I think I felt the same way that my daughter often does--I understood that she required more attention from our parents, but I didn't resent it because I knew that I was fortunate to NOT need this kind of attention. And my parents helped encourage this by putting high value on independence, so we were praised for being able to do stuff on our own, which also kept potential complaints in check. The only thing I really felt was unfair was that we couldn't go to Ocean City for family vacations like everyone else in the world we knew because our sister couldn't be out in the sun. I got over it.

My parents made it very clear from the time we were young adults that we would never be expected to be financially responsible for our sister. At the same time, though, the importance of family for emotional well being has been stressed in our lives so there isn't one of us who would think to emotionally abandon our sister once our parents are gone. I think my parents did a fabulous job of absolving us of legal and financial responsibility for our sister while alse ensuring that we are all emotionally responsible--which means, of course, that if their financial and legal structure falls apart for any reason, my siblings and I wouldn't hesitate to step in and take over if we have to.

I hope I can do the same for my own two kids. I don't want my older child to have to deal with the responsibility of making sure that my son (who may never be able to live independently) has what he needs to live, but it DOES comfort me to know that once my husband and I are dead, my son will still have a sister he loves and who loves him back. He's such a loving little guy, but I don't know what he'll be like as an adult. My experience with my sister isn't encouraging--except for family members, adults with disabilities often have few or no people in their lives who really care for them. There are dedicated workers who take care of their physical needs, but they can't or don't offer much beyond that. With an autistic child, of course, the concern is that the child, as an adult, won't be able to make the emotional connections you want them to have to keep their lives full and happy. That's what I hope my daughter will be able to offer.

Posted by: Sarah | December 4, 2007 10:34 AM | Report abuse

My oldest is having some trouble in school. His grandmother has been tutoring him and I've been spending extra time with him. This means that the youngest, still in pre-school, doesn't get much attention during the week.

I can't change how much time and energy I have in the day, but I do make a point to talk to him about it every night. I ask him how his day was and I listen to his concerns and stories. I tell him that he's special to me and that we'll spend some fun time on the weekend.

He knows I spend a lot of time visiting my older child's school. I make sure I attend some pre-school events so that my youngest has an opportunity to show off all his skills and talents.

The balance is off right now. Who knows, someday, the youngest may need more than the oldest. Still, I believe I'm accountable to both of my children for the time I spend with my family. So they deserve explanations and a chance to discuss their feelings about the choices I make.

Posted by: S. Spring | December 4, 2007 10:41 AM | Report abuse

In the blog I mentioned above, the typical child was expected to completely take over the care of the severely autistic child - to bring him into his home and watch over him, etc., and never have him put into any kind of group home or institution. While I agree you defintely need to look out for each other, this seemed to be a bit extreme. But then, I am not in this situation, so was wondering if this was the norm.

Posted by: ME | December 4, 2007 10:47 AM | Report abuse

I will tell people this story:

I had a friend in college whose sister was as normal as she was, only 9 years younger. Her mother always stated they were a family and that her oldest daughter had family responsibilities. This meant that since the older one was 12 she had cared for the younger daughter every day after school. Now she was 18 and in college, but she was still expected to go back to her mother's apartment and care for her sister every day after school.

Well all of us had an idea to take a great Wednesday/Friday class from 3-5pm and then do study group from 5-7pm after dinner. I was over at her apartment when I mentioned to her mother about our great plan and her mother freaked out! Now she was going to have to pay for her 9 year old to go into daycare after school and she wasn't about to do that. Being the idiot that I was, as I left their apartment I asked the mother why she thought it was her one daughter's responsibility to care for the other daughter and not her responsibility?

My friend signed up for afternoon classes and refused to drive back from the dorms to her mother's apartment. In retaliation her mother moved into a two bedroom apartment and my friend had to put all her stuff in storage. It was really sad.

We have two friends whose kids have Downs and they spend their entire days focusing on getting those kids independent and into programs where they will be independent earlier. One of the kids has visited some group homes, has been on a daytrip to a sleepover summer camp for older kids and every thing those parents are doing is revolving around getting those kids in a position to live on their own or in an apartment/assisted living type situation.

Posted by: DCer | December 4, 2007 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Neither my brother nor I is learning-disabled, but when we were children, my parents made sure that one night a week, each of them spent time solely with each of us. They worked out an informal rotation to make sure that "father-daughter" and "mother-son" time one week became "father-son" and "mother-daughter" time the next. I still remember how much I enjoyed those evenings.

So I think you've hit upon a great solution--but I would suggest to other parents that this is a good solution regardless of whether one of the children has special needs.

Posted by: Kate | December 4, 2007 12:23 PM | Report abuse

There's a book that addresses this sort of situation. I believe it's entitled "The Normal One". Anyway, I recommend it to the peanut gallery.

Yeah, the squeaky wheel gets the grease at my house too. But not always.

Posted by: maryland_mother | December 4, 2007 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Younger son, the neurotypical 10-y-o, has known the terms "Aspergers" and "autism" since he was about four. Why does his big brother get (fill in the blank)? Or, why does he do (whatever he's doing that annoys younger son)? That's his Aspergers, or autism. And those have to do with the way older son's brain developed and the way it works. It does help that younger son was put into the Gifted and Talented program three years ago.

We absolutely *don't* expect that younger son will have to care for his disabled brother after we're gone, and we're always actively pushing for older son to become a fully-functioning, independent adult. I don't know what we'd do if he were more severely affected by autism and there was no chance of him being self-supporting.

All siblings have rivalries. I think it's part of learning how to deal with other people, a skill that everyone needs throughout life. So, when the boys aren't getting along (it's rare, they have so many interests and traits in common) we'll stay out of it unless someone asks for our help, or if there's a possibility of physical damage - no blood means no reason to step in.

One thing I think we got right, during toddlerhood with both, they learned to hit their pillows when they were frustrated/angry/disappointed etc. instead of hitting each other or a parent. And they learned that timeouts could be called by them when they were needed, not just by parents. Giving them space to get out-of-control emotions back under control has been good for the whole family. DH and I do it too now, although we aren't as good at recognizing when we should, because it wasn't something we learned to do as children.

And finally, lots and lots of hugs, although older son, 15, doesn't want physical affection so much now. And lots of "levity" - younger son's new word lately.

Posted by: Sue | December 4, 2007 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Hey Mike, I have two children. My daughter is 13 and my son is 10. I try to spend equal amount of time with both children, although at my daughters age she is wanting to spend more time with her friends than with dad (I'm okay with that). They grow up very fast and one day your daughter will understand your sons situtation. My advice is to have special times with both children individually as well as with the whole family. Your friend from Antarctica, Bert

Posted by: bert | December 4, 2007 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for all of the comments. (I've got your e-mail thru Stacey and I'll be in touch, Bert. Promise.) I want to share that both my son and my daughter understand the timeouts and willingly take them when things are getting out of hand. And they've both put themselves in timeout. My son did today. We're trying to keep an even keel.

I try to keep my posts brief, tho it might not seem that way. But we're big on spending time individually with our kids, and look for full-family time, too.


Posted by: Mike | December 4, 2007 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Hey, Stacey, not to be completely off-topic here, but I found something highly relevant to your rant/post about kids being sick. That doctor you spoke with said that green mucus required a doctor's visit.

However, I just read this article:
In it, they point out that:
A) Sinus infections should not be treated with antibiotics, as a study in JAMA shows sinus infections clear up in ~2 weeks with or without antibiotics.


B) That, despite the commonly held belief, green mucus does NOT mean it's bacterial.

Posted by: Ryan | December 4, 2007 8:51 PM | Report abuse

I'm very interested in this discussion. I have three children with no disabilities and feel very blessed. They are just coming to an age where sibling rivalry is apparent, but my husband and I try very hard to have individual time with each of them.

I am more interested in this topic though because my husband is the "normal" younger brother of a disabled person. He grew up feeling very much left out and ignored. But for as long as I have known him, he always knew that he would one day be his brother's caregiver. That day came one year ago when my brother-in-law moved in with us. Now, my father-in-law has a long list of health problems and is not capable of taking care of him. But my mother-in-law has absolutely no reason to not be taking care of her son. None at all. She simply refuses. My husband did not want to see his brother go to a group home, though I research local places because I think that it would be good for all of us.

Posted by: Jen | December 5, 2007 7:36 AM | Report abuse

I loved your entry today. I saw myself in your daughter -- ssense of entitlement, stubborn, bossy! I am the middle child with a brother on each side. I am the only girl in my immediate family ... period ... with 2 brothers, 2 sons, 2 nephews. Bossy and entitlement attributes come in handy. Also, the time you spend alone with her is incredibly important. I have a child who had special needs when he was younger. I made the older one feel that we couldn't do anything without his help. I incorporated him in as many activities as I could involving my other son, asking for his opinion, etc. They still fought like mad, but now they are grown up and tight buddies. Hang in there!

Posted by: luv2laff11 | December 5, 2007 12:43 PM | Report abuse

I found this while searching for information that could help me with my 40+ year old brother, who is physically handicapped and lives with our frail 70+ year old father. Our mother passed away 10 years ago. I am married and my wife and I do not have children. There are currently no plans in place for my brother after our dad passes away. Quite frankly, I don't like the future that I see headed my way since my brother does not work, does not drive, and is not on any form of disability. Nor does he have any kind of ambition to improve his living situation other than to wait for someone to take care of him. I deeply resent this situation which is coming to roost with me. I have never had any plans or desire to take care of my brother after my parents were unable to. My wife does not look forward to the future, either.

Thank you for listening.

Posted by: NotASocialWorker | December 24, 2007 7:20 PM | Report abuse

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