At a glance
Talking openly about differences shows kids there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Start these conversations early, and keep it simple.
Validate feelings and make space for questions.
When one of your children has a learning or thinking difference like ADHD or dyslexia, it can be hard for their siblings to understand what’s going on. And they may not know if it’s OK to ask questions about their brother or sister’s challenges.
Having an open conversation about learning and thinking differences is key. It gets the family on the same page and gives kids the chance to ask questions. It also shows that difference is something to be celebrated — not hidden.
Here are tips that can help.
When to talk to kids about their sibling’s challenges
You don’t have to wait for your child who learns and thinks differently to have a diagnosis. The goal isn’t to share what a diagnosis means. Rather, it’s to help kids understand that their sibling may need support, or may struggle with things that other kids don’t need as much help with. For example, if one child:
- Needs more support for homework than their brothers or sisters
- Has a harder time controlling their behavior than their siblings do
- Struggles to make friends, or needs extra help during playdates
In cases like these, be proactive. Starting the conversation early helps kids feel informed and supported. It also gives them the chance to ask questions and process feelings in a healthy way.
How to decide what to talk about
Kids are very aware of what others do or don’t get. And differences can bring up questions — and big feelings. It’ll likely be easier for kids to adapt if they understand the “why” behind a sibling’s needs.
Keep in mind that there’s a big difference between what a 5-year-old and a 10-year-old can grasp. Go with your gut when deciding how much to share.
As your child who learns and thinks differently gets older, they may want to share things on their own. Or they may have strong feelings about what they are or aren’t comfortable with their siblings knowing. Be sure to keep a dialogue going, so you’re aware of their preferences.
How to approach the conversation
- Ask questions. Find out what your child’s siblings are curious about. This can be open-ended, or you can guide them. For example, you could ask, “Do you know what an IEP is?” This opens the floor for kids to ask questions, like why they don’t get to have an IEP, too.
- Use “noticing statements.” Help kids get talking by sharing what you’ve noticed. For example, “I see that you noticed we spend a lot of time helping your brother with his reading.” Then see if questions emerge from there.
- Validate feelings. Give kids a chance to share their feelings. Your child may feel confused or concerned. It’s key to validate these feelings, as well as negative feelings like frustration or jealousy. For example, a child may feel hurt that you’re more patient with their sibling about things like a bad grade. You can respond with, “I hear you. It feels really unfair.”
- Offer perspective. This can help kids build empathy. For example, “Imagine if you were really trying to read, and it just wouldn’t happen. What do you think that would feel like?”
- Be honest if you don’t have an answer. It’s totally fine to say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m always trying to learn more about how you and your sibling think and what you need. We’re all still learning.” This helps plant the seeds for kindness and empathy.
Having these conversations can be tough. Your kids may not always get along. But ultimately, starting a dialogue early shows kids that there’s nothing to be ashamed of. And it paves the way for openness going forward.
Here are more resources that may help. Find out how to:
This isn’t a one-time talk. You’ll have lots of conversations over the years.
Share things that you notice to help get siblings talking.
Your child with learning and thinking differences may want to talk on their own with siblings, too.
About the author
About the author
Margie DeSantis is an associate editor at Understood.
Andrew Kahn, PsyD is a licensed psychologist who specializes in working with people who learn and think differently. He is also Understood’s associate director of behavior change and expertise. In that role, Dr. Kahn focuses on numerous topics, including ADHD, anxiety, learning and behavioral challenges, and learning and social-emotional functioning. Executive function and emotional regulation have been at the core of his work for over two decades. His work has been featured in Forbes, NPR, Business Insider, and Emotional Intelligence.