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Siblings of twice-exceptional children

Meredith G. Warshaw, M.S.S., M.A.
Special Needs Educational Advisor

It can be difficult for parents to enable siblings of special needs children to understand that parents are not favoring the special needs child, that he or she truly has severe learning issues, yet at the same time letting the NT (neuro-typical – a term often used to denote people who do not have special needs) children know that we empathize with their frustration.

It can seem unfair to a child when parents have different expectations for different children. There are no easy answers. One thing that sometimes helps is for parents to explain that that they expect the same amount of difficulty for each child where difficulty is measured by how difficult something is for the child, not the end result. For example, if one child were on crutches, it might be equally difficult for her to walk 1 block as it is for a child who is not on crutches to walk 1 mile. So, expecting different output (1 block versus 1 mile) is still expecting the same amount of work from each child.

Here are a few things that can be helpful:

  • Let the NT child know that you understand that the situation is very frustrating and that it can seem that you have different standards for the special-needs child. Listen empathetically, acknowledging her needs and opinions.  Realize that no one, not even parents, can realize how difficult it is to be the sibling of a high-maintenance child.
  • Have the NT child try writing a 1-page essay using his non-dominant hand, being told it will be evaluated for content and spelling and neatness, and see how tired he is at the end, then explain that this is how his sibling feels after many academic tasks that would be easy if he didn't have his learning disabilities.
  • Let the child tell you if any of the expectations you have for her seem unreasonable – not in comparison with your expectations of her sibling, but on their own merits. If she thinks something is unreasonable, listen to her argument and see if there is any room for compromise.
  • Children with special needs often need extra attention from their parents, which can be hard on the NT siblings. If possible, try to schedule some special time for the NT child with one of his parents - he may feel that his sibling gets all the attention and he only gets attention when he's in trouble.
  • Be sure that you are not expecting the NT child to hide her achievements in order to keep her sibling from feeling badly.
  • Make sure that you recognize the NT child's achievements, not just his short-comings. Otherwise, he can feel that he is in a double-bind – he gets in trouble if he is not perfect, but does not get praise for doing well because that is what's expected of him.
  • Don’t expect your NT child to behave more maturely because your special needs child is difficult.  The NT child is still a child with the same needs as her peers.  Do the best you can to meet your NT child's needs; when you can’t, let her know that you realize that she has legitimate grounds for being upset.

NT children may be angry about the difficulty of having a special needs sibling.  In addition to taking away their parents’ time and attention, the special needs child may embarrass his or her siblings at school or in other settings.  NT children may also mourn the loss of the “sibling that might have been” had the special needs child been NT.   These are normal feelings, and it is important to recognize them in an accepting, understanding way, and validate the truth of the NT child’s experience.   NT children may feel guilty for having these negative feelings; it is important to reassure them that there are no forbidden feelings, only forbidden actions.

Some areas have support groups for siblings of special needs children.  NT children may find it helpful and reassuring to meet other children in similar situations and find out that they are not alone.


Copyright Meredith G. Warshaw, 2003.  Thanks to Kim Johnson Oswald for her insightful suggestions.

Last updated Tuesday March 29, 2005

"Children require guidance and sympathy far more than instruction."
       ~ Anne Sullivan (Helen Keller's Teacher)

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