During one of my early talks about my book, Laughing Allegra, a woman sat in the audience in tears. I was sharing the story of trying to find help for my daughter Allegra, who has . So I thought the woman’s sadness might have been caused by a similar experience.
After the talk, I approached the woman and asked why she was crying. She then told me that she was distressed because she couldn’t treat both of her children equally. She felt like a neglectful parent. She felt that she wasn’t able to give her child without special needs the attention he deserved, and she asked what she could do about it.
Can it really be that bad? I thought.
I have since learned that, yes, the failure to give attention equally to children, especially when one has special needs, can, indeed, be that bad. That’s why I decided to write about it in my newest book, The Forgotten Child.
Some parents face sibling issues on a daily basis. One child may complain about all the attention paid to the child with learning differences, or may cry and ask why you spend so much time with her. Sometimes the child with special needs causes such havoc in the home, or has such overwhelming demands, that other siblings feel left out.
In other families, the parents may have absolutely no clue this is an issue at all. They watch their children grow and feel they’ve done the best possible for all of them. Then comes the shock of discovering the child without learning differences has been having trouble all along.
This is what happened to me.
I didn’t realize my son Alessandro felt I had favored his sister Allegra until he was in his early twenties. Nor did I understand that this imbalance of attention had caused resentment. He never vocalized it.
He also never fully understood what was happening. I never explained his sister’s challenges to him in a clear way. So as far as he was concerned, she was receiving preferential treatment.
In Alessandro’s words:
“It was hard for me to understand why my sister could learn to become an expert figure skater but met with constant frustration with her reading, writing and math skills. While I got punished for bad grades, I saw Allegra getting comforted. While I was pushed to do better, Allegra was allowed to move on and sidestep the problems arising from her education.”
Similarly, one of the young adults I spoke to for The Forgotten Child said all she ever heard was that her sister was “special.” For instance, when she asked her mother why she had to clean her room while her sister was allowed to leave hers a mess, her mother said, “Because your sister is special.”
All through childhood she wondered, “If she is special, what am I?” Those words broke my heart.
So what can we do to help siblings feel valued?
Explain, explain, explain—that’s what I tell parents now. Sit down with your child. Talk about what’s going on with their sibling. Of equal importance is to listen to your children when they say they feel neglected or “less than”—and really hear them too.
Again, I think my son Alessandro said it best:
“I wish my mother had asked a professional to explain exactly what was going on with my sister. To all parents, I cannot stress enough how important it is to allow your other children to share in what you are learning. If I knew then what I know now, everything would have been a lot clearer.”
I wish I had known how Alessandro felt earlier. That’s why I’m sharing these experiences with you. Follow Alessandro’s advice and you’ll go a long way toward helping a sibling of a child with learning and thinking differences to not be the forgotten child of the family.
Get ideas on how you can make time for the siblings of kids with learning and thinking differences.
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About the author
Anne Ford served as chairman of the board of the National Center for Learning Disabilities from 1989 to 2001.