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Ask the Experts

My Son Compares Himself to His Gifted Brother

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

My first-grade son doesn't read well, although he is very creative and gifted in other ways. My 9-year-old son is very gifted in reading and reads high-school-level books. This is becoming an issue because my younger son feels that he isn't smart. How can I help him feel better?

Answer:

It's pretty easy to provide our firstborn child with praise, attention and other forms of reinforcement. When more children come along, we find ourselves faced with a dilemma: How do we provide equal amounts of the good stuff to each child? How do we keep one or the other from feeling slighted, and how do we handle our own feelings of guilt when it inevitably happens anyway? Parental guilt and sibling rivalry are complex issues, but the issue here may be much simpler to resolve.

When you say your first-grader "doesn't read well," I'm not sure what you mean. Is he reading below the level of his classmates? If so, talk with his teacher about your concerns, and ask for suggestions about how to boost his skills at home. Or is he not reading as well as his older brother did at the same age? If this is the case, you may need to change your expectations, or it may simply be a confidence issue. If he has seen his brother get praise for his reading abilities, then he may feel that he falls short. Make certain that you praise your younger boy for his efforts and strengths as often as you praise his brother for his.

Finally, consider that your younger son may be asking for something else when he tells you he isn't smart. Pay attention to the circumstances when he says this. Does he say it right after you praise his older brother? Does he say it when he's tired or coming down with a cold? Could he just want some attention? Sometimes a big hug and redirection can take the intensity out of such moments. If you think this is the case, try to underreact when he says it, and move him on to something else.


Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

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