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How Learning Disabilities Affect a Child's Siblings

How does one child's learning problems affect his siblings? Dr. Betty Osman explains what can happen and how you can help.

By Betty Osman, Ph.D.

It's important for parents to talk about learning disabilities (LD) with their affected children and adolescents. Learning disabilities have an impact on all family members, yet there is a tendency to neglect the impact on siblings. In this article, Betty Osman, Ph.D., discusses how a child's learning problems affect the other children in the family, and how parents can help.

Although studies are inconclusive in assessing the impact of learning disabilities (LD) on siblings, it is generally acknowledged that the presence of a child with LD in the family affects the social and emotional development of siblings. While some brothers and sisters, usually adults, claim to have had a special and loving relationship with their sibling with LD, most children and adolescents appear to have complex and intense feelings about themselves, their sibling(s) with LD, and their families in general. Birth order, the attitude of parents, and family dynamics are influential factors.

According to a study by Trevino in 1979, (referenced in Brothers and Sisters -A Special Part of Exceptional Families), adverse effects on siblings are more likely to occur in families in which:

  • There are only two children, one of whom has a disabling condition.
  • The children are of the same sex and close in age.
  • The child without the problem is the eldest female in the family.
  • Parents cannot accept their child 's LD.

Realistically, the child with learning disabilities in the family usually requires more parental time and attention. A sibling may become understandably resentful when his needs and bids for attention are overshadowed by those of his brother or sister. Each child in a family typically craves all the resources available from parents, and anyone vying for those resources is seen as unwelcome competition.

Then, too, parents tend to expect more of a sibling without learning disabilities, i.e., higher achievement in school, appropriate behavior in all settings, and even care taking of the sibling with LD. Because they are more able, parents may give them more responsibilities and rely on them, perhaps more than they realize, to ease the burden for the family.

Even when parents are sensitive to their children 's needs and don 't impose more responsibility than is appropriate, some siblings assume it for themselves. They try to be the "super-kids" in an attempt to compensate for the child with LD and preserve the "family ego." Some act as miniature parents for their brother or sister, assuming an overly protective role. Commendable as this is, it may be more than the child is prepared to handle and takes an emotional toll.

Another problem for many siblings of children and adolescents with LD is also largely self-imposed. It is the guilt they may feel for being "normal" and well functioning. "Why him and not me?" they ask, particularly in view of the hostile thoughts and angry feelings most brothers and sisters feel toward each other at times. Some boys and girls even become afraid to excel, for fear of retribution for surpassing their sibling. Parents may unwittingly support this in their effort to protect the child with LD. It seems to be the plight of many children with learning disabilities to have a brother or sister who is not only delightful but also precocious. That child 's strengths need to be encouraged as well, even if it seems "unfair" to the sibling with LD.

Finally, children without problems may become overly anxious and worried, particularly in families where the subject of learning disabilities is taboo and not talked about. Many children are embarrassed in social situations by their brother or sister with LD, not knowing how to explain a problem they don 't fully understand. Therefore, it is important for parents to keep the lines of communication open, including siblings in family discussions about this sensitive subject.

In my experience, most often brothers and sisters of children with LD are excluded from family discussions about learning disabilities and rarely are privy to either information about  the child 's disability or his special needs. Lacking knowledge, they can become resentful, anxious, and confused, with questions they may be afraid to ask. It is not uncommon for a young person to worry, "Is what my brother has contagious? If I 'm bad will I get it, too?" or "Will I be responsible for my brother when my parents are old?" and, as a young adult with LD asked me recently, "Will my children be doubly affected if I marry a woman who also has learning disabilities? How great is the risk?"

In addition to their questions, siblings also need an opportunity to express their negative feelings about their brother or sister, difficult as this may be for parents. Some parents discourage children from talking about a sibling 's learning disabilities, not only fearing the stigma, but the teasing and rejection of other children and/or their parents. Although their concerns are understandable, a sibling 's lack of knowledge and information is even more detrimental. Generally, when siblings are included in discussions, they are likely to become more understanding and supportive of their brother or sister.


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

02/1/2012:
"another thing you can do is to have the kids support each other. My sister has a speech-language disorder (not sure of the actual name), but it makes it so that she can't "sound words out". I'm of the "precocious" variety, so I helped her spell and tell her how to pronounce new words. But she's way more organized than I am, so in return she helps me stay focused. "
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