Helping Siblings When They Compare Themselves to Each Other
The latest 'Understanding Kids' column
It is sometimes the case that children notice the skills and strengths of their siblings or peers, and make comparisons to one another. How can parents support their children when their abilities, strengths and talents vary?
Our answer to this question is rooted in our general way of thinking about helping children. Healthy parent-child communication involves an openness of the parents to bear — to be able to listen to, tolerate and accept — a range of feelings from their children. When children feel that they can share a full range of feelings, even those that are uncomfortable, parents are better positioned to provide guidance that is meaningful and long-lasting. Regardless of the topic a child chooses to bring up, we encourage parents to listen to their child’s thoughts and worries, to acknowledge their child’s feelings and perspective as genuine and real, and to be honest and tactful in the guidance and words of comfort they offer.
“I can’t read like Johnny. I’ll never be able to do that.”
Take time to listen when your child talks about his or her feelings. In healthy relationships, active listening involves allowing the other party to fully express their ideas without fear of being told they are wrong. The adult instinct in a conversation with a child, however, is often to make things better — quickly. (“Oh, come on, your reading is just fine!”) In some cases, simply listening without judgment or comment is enough. Give your child the space to share what is on his or her mind without the additional worry about negative consequences or disapproval.
“Johnny does read a lot, and you are right that he is good at it. He is reading even more lately, which you’ve probably noticed.”
There are usually truths in what a child shares from his or her perspective, even if a parent or other adult may see the situation differently or from a wider (and wiser) perspective. Acknowledge your child’s feelings as real rather than offering alternative feelings. Doing so may expand and deepen the conversation, perhaps leading to questions or comments that widen the child’s perspective.
Offering alternative feelings often closes down communication. “You have your own things you’re good at,” for example, is a conversation stopper, conveying that you’re not interested in hearing how your child feels about Johnny’s reading ability, or that you don’t fully understand that this is an issue that is truly bothersome or troubling to your child.
Be Honest and Tactful
“Johnny is a good reader. You are right. He is a little older and has had more practice, but I also know that reading has been really hard for you. There are things we can do to help you with your reading. Would you like that?”
Try to have an honest and tactful acknowledgment of the differences between your children, or between your child and his or her peers. Downplaying the reality of the situation may leave a child feeling alone with his or her feelings. She may feel as if she has done something wrong by having the feeling. For many children, their inner world is one of the most challenging subjects to bring up independently, especially if they are ashamed or worried that they shouldn’t feel the way they do.
By conveying that you are ready to listen and respect your child’s feelings, no matter what, you will be creating a space for healthy communication that will be rewarding for both you and your child.
Jennifer Reid, who has a master’s degree in early childhood education from New York University, is director of the early school at Lucy Daniels Center. She began teaching in 2001 and has worked at the Lucy Daniels School since 2005. The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.