When One Child Is Gifted: Avoiding Sibling Rivalry When Kids Have Different Academic Aptitudes

Having one child who is academically gifted and one who struggles in school may create a tense family dynamic. Here is what parents can do to avoid that and encourage happy sibling relationships.

Siblings are not all equally talented at the same things. Each child brings her own aptitudes and challenges to the table.

In some cases, one child may be classified as gifted, while the other struggles in school. What happens in a family when siblings have different academic experiences?

Anticipating Challenges

Common challenges can include sibling competition and feelings of jealousy and inferiority, according to Dr. Jennifer D. Cassatly, a clinical psychologist who works with children and adolescents.

The sibling relationship can be affected both positively and negatively. “On one hand, children can feel proud and supportive of the other’s success,” says Dr. Cassatly. “The competition could be friendly and help them develop a closer relationship. They may also feel motivated to excel in their own area of strengths. On the other hand, they may be more easily frustrated, feel more discouraged about their own abilities, and feel as though they have less in common with their sibling.”

Avoiding Comparisons

The problem is, unless you are an only child, everyone is subject to the inevitable sibling comparisons, says Allison Levison, guidance counselor at Jefferson Middle School in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s constantly reminded of this as she gets to know new students each fall. When she recognizes a last name and asks about the family, her students will frequently say something to the effect of, “I’m not as good at math as my brother.”

“My experience has been that despite parents’ constant reassurance to the contrary, these labels are generally self-generated and directed by the students themselves,” says Levison. “Kids may feel if they can’t be the ‘smart’ son or daughter, they could perhaps fulfill the role of the athletic or funny member of the family. Witnessing this self-fulfilled prophecy at such an early age often leaves parents both heartbroken and frustrated.”

Studying the Dynamic

The good news is that it’s a misconception that children with a gifted sibling have tense relationships. “The belief holds that parents bestow attention, praise, and resources on the gifted child to the detriment of the other…that the children are inevitably competitive, and that the brilliance of the ‘star’ blinds everyone else to the gifts of the ‘non-star.’ The trouble is — it isn’t true,” writes Dr. Nancy M. Robinson, professor emerita of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, in the Digest of Gifted Research.

Dr. Robinson and her colleagues conducted a study of 378 pairs of siblings, ages eight to 13, in which neither, one, or both children were identified as gifted. The results were surprising. Instead of the non-gifted siblings being more insecure or negatively-disposed toward their gifted siblings, all the groups had a similar variety of relationship types, regardless of whether neither, one, or both children were gifted. In each category, there were children whose adjustment and relationships weren’t ideal — but these outcomes did not correlate with having a gifted sibling. Where there were differences across categories, the differences showed that it was actually an asset for a child to have a gifted sibling.

“Our best guess, based on this study, was that having a gifted sibling was simply a ready excuse for the ordinary wear and tear that brothers and sisters inflict on each other,” writes Dr. Robinson.

Parenting Siblings with Differences

There are many actions parents can take to maintain equilibrium despite any differences between siblings. Some suggestions from Drs. Cassatly and Robinson include:

  • Avoid comparing children unfavorably to one another.

  • Emphasize and praise all of your children’s strengths.

  • Recognize that not all strengths lie in academics or sports; creativity, musicality, work ethic, and kindness are also important qualities.

  • Remind your children that each of them is unique with her own special qualities.

  • Don’t expect problems to arise between your children; rather, expect them to get along and like one another.

  • Teach your children that “fair” isn’t necessarily “the same,” and that you’ll meet each child’s needs and passions as best you can.

  • Make time for companionship, hugs, fun, and alone time with each of your children.

  • Don’t let one child be more privileged than another, but do let them have privileges that come with age.

  • If one child is really struggling with homework, understand how discouraging that struggle can be, and show support by sitting nearby.

Seeking School Resources

Levison is a strong advocate of parents first seeking school-based resources. “This is, after all, the place in which their kids spend the majority of their day,” she says. If your child is feeling insecure or inadequate because of a sibling’s success, she recommends communicating with your child’s guidance counselor and teachers.

“As adults, we see the myriad of talents and potential our kids have,” says Levison. “However, until kids experience success in a unique arena for themselves, our encouragement may not be enough. Kids typically maintain a stoic demeanor in front of their peers, so any insight provided to the school from the parents is incredibly helpful.”

For example, if a student expresses interest in a particular academic, athletic, or musical school organization but is reluctant to join, Levison says a gentle nudge from a favorite teacher or coach may just be the “x factor” that gets the student over that barrier.

And finally, to offset a possible academic imbalance, Levison says, “I encourage parents to get their kids involved in community and recreational activities that are driven by their interests.”

If you're looking for additional academic help outside of school, browse the tutors in your area. You can even find tutors who specialize in tutoring gifted children.

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