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Living with Siblings with Learning Disabilities

These profiles of 142 people whose lives are touched by dyslexia show what siblings say about having a brother or sister with LD.

By Shirley Kurnoff, M.Ed.

Raising a family is always a balancing act, especially if you have more than one child. If one of your kids has a learning disability, but the others do not, you may wonder how to manage their different practical and emotional needs. In her book, The Human Side of Dyslexia, author Shirley Kurnoff explores this topic (and many others) through interviews with 142 parents, siblings and college students, who share their experiences and coping mechanisms.

Shirley Kurnoff: Why - and How - I Wrote This Book

I don't profess to be an expert in dyslexia but I do know what it is like, as a parent, to face the obstacles of educating a child with dyslexia… I didn't have a book like this one and I really needed it… I wanted to know more about the journey our family inevitably was going to take. What I found, though, was a plethora of information on how the student learns, suggested medication, multi-sensory programs, the legal system, scientific studies and academic analyses. But there wasn't a book written on what really matters most: the human side of dyslexia.

So, I embarked on a mission to fill that gap. The Human Side of Dyslexia is a book about real people with real stories, 142 of the 210 people I interviewed; a book with emotions and courage, common sense and tenacity…. It's also a book about coping strategies that work. My goal with this book is to make your journey as a parent a lot less painful and a lot more light-hearted.

The following are excerpts from The Human Side of Dyslexia.

What Siblings Say

27 siblings (young children, teenagers and young adults) contributed to this section. None of the siblings have dyslexia. I asked them about their relationship with their dyslexic sibling, with their parents, and their feelings about dyslexia in general. Their interviews reveal a number of interesting patterns, not only regarding birth order, but also age, gender and parental attitudes toward dyslexia. Let's look briefly at them all.

Birth Order

From what siblings told me, birth order absolutely alters sibling relationships. An older sibling often tends to be more protective over a younger child with dyslexia. They want to have input into the parental decision-making process surrounding homework and family issues related to dyslexia. They also appear to be concerned that their sibling doesn't conform to their preconceived standards. Instead of feeling comfortable with their sibling's differences, they can't understand why he/she doesn't fit into the "normal" box. The respondent's age and the parental attitude toward dyslexia may have contributed to this negative thinking about their sibling's futures.

Without a doubt, the younger, non-dyslexic siblings are less concerned with different learning styles. In fact, they seem to see their brothers/sisters through rose-colored glasses, almost completely eschewing any negative feelings. More importantly, they applaud their accomplishments. For them, "different" doesn't mean "better" or "worse."

Age

The age of the child affects how they perceive their sibling's different learning style. College students respect differences and see promise in their sibling's future. Often, they are close in age and have witnessed a track record of mini-successes (non-school related) from their dyslexic sibling. They also no longer are in a parenting role.

Teens, meanwhile, with a younger dyslexic sibling say that grades are most important and are the only measure of success. They have some strong concerns about differences.

At the other end of the scale, 9-12 year olds don't seem particularly concerned with differences. In essence, they see only the positive side of their dyslexic sibling. Young kids also lack the intellectual understanding or depth of experience to make supportive comments. Essentially, they take their brother or sister at face value.

Gender

The child's gender seems to have an impact on his/her thinking and to strongly reinforce birth order. Teenage girls who are older siblings, for example, take on a protective, parental role, a behavior that appears to come from love and caring.

Reprinted with permission from Shirley Kurnoff. All rights reserved.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

03/15/2010:
"I'm very thankful to have these articles to read, I have a grandson age 15, who is AD/HD and is failing all his classes in high school cause he wants to have fun and not do the school work..he worries about everyone liking him, he's a sweet kid but has his moments... It's always a ongoing battle...I worry alot about him...He's not on meds any more, they kept trying different ones and they made him sick, he's had couseling...last week they all met with teachers, parents and him to explain he needs to get his life together and do his school work, that didn't help much...he just wants to be a nice guy and everyone's friend in school...he can be so sweet. Now what..."
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