Families where one child struggles in school while the other children do fine or even excel academically have some complicated dynamics. When the struggling child has other issues that impact his interaction with others, such as anxiety or attention difficulties or perhaps medical issues, the relationship between that child and his siblings can become even more difficult.
The child who struggles can't help but be aware that his siblings are doing better than he is in school. It doesn't matter what the age arrangement may be. If it is the youngest who struggles, he can feel hopeless about ever catching his brothers and he may have to deal with teachers who initially expect the higher level of performance that the older siblings demonstrated in school. If the struggling student is the oldest, he can't help but be aware that his younger siblings are excelling in ways that are not possible for him. And, of course, middle students are faced with both concerns as they look at their siblings.
Interestingly, it may be that siblings with learning difficulties get less support or empathy than those with obvious physical disabilities. As educator and author Rick Lavoie notes in his book, It's So Much Work to be Your Friend "There is no outward appearance of a disability, so his idiosyncratic and age-inappropriate behavior is often misinterpreted as willful and purposeful by others in his environment -- including his siblings." The nature of the sibling can also make a big difference. It is not unusual for one sibling to show empathy and understanding of his struggling brother while another sibling may make his impatience and displeasure obvious.
What can parents due to defuse this kind of situation and to foster understanding and self esteem? One step is to avoid labels. We don't like labels as a way of describing learning diffiiculties and we certainly are uncomfortable when parents label any of their children: the smart one, the good one, the slow one. Don't laugh -- we've heard these used. Parents can also try to balance the need to teach the typically learning siblings to be understanding with the awareness that all siblings can be an embarrassment when a young person is trying to fit in with his friends. Where the struggling student needs expensive supports, such as a private school or tutors, siblings may have concerns that they will be shortchanged so that the family can meeting the struggling student's needs. Parents need to understand this and explain that they try to give each child in the family what he needs and that they love all their children equally.
There's no one formula and no simple answers to the family friction that can arise when one sibling has special learning needs. But perhaps the best tool families can bring to the holiday table is a sense of humor and lots of hugs all around.