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.

What, then, can parents do to help other children in the family become more accepting of a sibling who has learning disabilities? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Inform the child as honestly as possible about their brother or sister ‘s problem, not necessarily in terms of a label, but rather in descriptive terms at their level of understanding. Some children ‘s books may be used for sharing and illustration:
    • The Summer of the Swan by William Allen White (about a trumpeter swan without a voice, i.e., a learning disability),
    • Kelly ‘s Creek by Doris Buchanan Smith (a boy with learning disabilities who loves nature)
    • When Learning is Tough by Cynthia Roby (kids talk about their learning disabilities)
    • The Survival Guide for Kids with LD by Gary Fisher and Rhoda Cummings (practical questions and answers).
  • Acknowledge and accept the child ‘s feelings about her brother or sister with LD, understanding she must feel deprived of attention, jealous at times, and even resentful. Those feelings are normal and not a cause for guilt or recrimination.
  • Let your child know that he is not responsible for his sibling with LD and will only be asked to help when absolutely necessary.
  • Find ways for each child in the family to gain recognition and a feeling of self-worth.
  • Acknowledge they are separate people, appreciated and loved for who they are rather than for what they can achieve.

In other words, parents can create a safe and secure environment for siblings of children with LD by not expecting more of them than is appropriate, by informing them about learning disabilities, by answering their questions and concerns as honestly as possible, and by letting them know it is acceptable and safe to share their thoughts and feelings with you.