My daughter lives in the shadow of her twice exceptional brother. Not only does she hear people commenting often about his brilliance, she also experiences the embarrassment and frustration that come with his special needs. She is brilliant too, just not in ways that are as obvious. She is incredibly mature, highly creative, artistic, imaginative, and a gifted leader. On the flip side, her twice exceptionality is not as noticeable either. She keeps her anxiety well hidden from the outside world, and she is socially skilled, which makes her seem pretty normal to most people.

Last week we were visiting my Mom and headed off to an amusement park for the day with our extended family. My son was having a difficult day with his germ phobia and repeatedly did things that embarrassed her in front of her cousins. At the end of the day, as we were getting out of the car, he pushed into her in his efforts to stay a “safe” distance from the car tires. She reacted by pushing him into the car tire, at which point all hell broke loose.

Later, as I tried to talk to both of them, I made the mistake of asking my son if he was okay. My daughter screamed, “Why don’t you ever ask me if I am okay?!” and stormed out of the house. I gave her a minute to settle down and then I went outside and lay down on the grass next to her. “I know life with your brother can be hard,” I said and she began to sob.

“I feel so ashamed that I pushed him,” she gulped, “I love him so much, but he drives me crazy!”

I looked at her and said, “Me too, but as his Mom, I also have the responsibility to try to help him grow up and become functional. You have the option to walk away from it.”

She looked me in the eye and said, “Not really, I can’t get away from it. I live with it every day and none of my friends really understand or want to talk about it.” She went on to tell me how lonely she felt. Her close friends don’t want to have deep, emotional conversations. She feels they don’t really understand who she is or what her life is like. She is not interested in many of the things they find fascinating and vice-versa. She often feels she has more in common with their older siblings. Having a weird brother just makes her feel more isolated. On some level she longs for a “normal” sibling relationship, including the rivalry. She doesn’t feel she can fight with her brother, rely on him for anything, or even banter and tease him. Because he is so gullible and strange, she feels extremely protective of him; but at the same time she longs for him to understand her and interact with her in a more typical way. He looks up to her and is extremely wounded if she is mean to him. She said when she lashes out at him, it makes her feel like she just whipped a puppy.

It was one of those moments when you realize you have let the parenting ball drop. I have tried very hard to make sure she didn’t feel responsible for her brother. I would never purposefully guilt trip her about her reactions to him. I only required that my children be kind to each other. I have worked to ensure she had plenty of time with friends and an active social life away from her brother. Even though dealing with her brother’s issues have taken the majority of my time, I had tried to work in some Mom/Daughter time with one-on-one attention. I thought I had been allowing her the space and freedom to not deal with his issues continually; but now I realized she carries that burden with her where ever she goes. Despite her coping skills and independence, she needs my advocacy and attention as much as her brother. I had no idea she felt so alone.

As I lay beside my incredible daughter, looking up at the stars on this warm summer night, I took her hand and promised her that I would try harder to be sensitive to her needs. I vowed to listen more, be better at acknowledging her efforts, and more attentive to her accomplishments. I told her how much I valued both her independence and support. I assured her that friendships will get easier as she gets older, there will be more chance of meeting like-minded people as her world expands. I also told her that her brother will probably get better at handling his problems and may get to the point someday where he doesn’t embarrass her. But in the meantime, I encouraged her to talk to him about her feelings. That it is okay to tell him she feels uncomfortable, or frustrated, or embarrassed; but that she also needs to let him know what she loves about him. I told her that I hope someday he will be able to give her the same kind of support she has given him, that eventually she can put some of her burdens on his shoulders. In the meantime, I want her to experience the sheer joy of growing into her own potential and I promised her I would be more attuned to helping her get there.

As we all learn and grow as a family, I fervently hope that she will see what an incredible person she is, know that she is valued, and have the confidence to believe in herself, even when I drop the ball.

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2 thoughts on “Sibling Rivalry

  1. What a powerful post! I remember many years ago, when a good friend with two children was in crisis because her younger child had leukemia. The whole family mobilized to keep her alive and support her through difficult and painful procedures, hospitalizations, and setbacks. My oldest was best friends with her oldest, who in the midst of her sister’s chemo, got the chicken pox. She had to come live with usn for three weeks, given the immunocompromise chemo brought her sister. She needed her mommy so much, but I had to do. The family later joined a support group for kids with cancer, which ran a summer camp for their sibs. Why the sibs? Because the therapists explained that while they could likely save the sick child, many families disintegrated and in particular, many sibs imploded living in the shadow of this stress and trauma. I’ve always remembered this, and recently became aware of just how left out my son felt when I adopted my youngest with intensive medical needs. Today, we have a sweet routine in which she goes to bed at 8, and he and I hang out from 8-11 doing whatever, including cuddling. He recently shared how lonely, and how abandoned he felt during the worst of his sister’s medical needs, and I realized that I’d depended on his “low social drive”–even exploited it–because he seemed perfectly happy to do his own thing most of the time. I was so wrong–he needs me to push him to interact and, as his teachers say, find three legitimate times every day to say I love you and NOTHING else, and find him doing something right six time a time and praise him. If I don’t see him, I miss the opportunities. It’s very hard, and requires a mindfulness in parenting that frankly, I can’t always access.
    I might add that getting OUR needs met is an ongoing issue too….
    Cheryl

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