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When Your Children's Abilities Differ

Family activities and one-on-one time can help minimize sibling jealousy

by Marybeth Lambe

As in all families, each child in an adoptive family has unique strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, adoptive families may have children from different backgrounds, or who were adopted at different ages. As children reach school age, their academic strengths and weaknesses become especially apparent. A child who struggles in school requires more help and support from her parents. Meanwhile, her more academically inclined brother or sister may feel jealous at the homework attention a brother or sister receives.

Focus on Strengths
Too often we focus on academic difficulties our children face exclusively. We redouble our efforts to help our child read, maintain focus, or learn math. But after struggling all day at school, facing more of the same at home can be exhausting for a child.

Ask yourself, What are this child's talents? She may have an artistic bent, a sense of humor or kindness, or a special ability to interact with animals. Whatever her skill is, acknowledge and nurture it.

Help your child balance schoolwork difficulties with excellence in other areas. Sports, playing a musical instrument, and caring for a pet all help a child to feel proud of himself.

And give your child chances to contribute to the family. Exempting a child from chores because schoolwork takes all her time only makes her feel less capable. Setting the table, dog-walking, or sorting socks helps a child feel competent and trusted.

Create opportunities for your children to spend family time together in ways that minimize the differences between them. Family hikes, craft activities, and cooking together provide ways for siblings to interact without competition.

Time for the High-Achiever
Remember, children view any attention, even the negative attention given an academically weak sibling, as desirable. Provide time for each child to discuss his feelings or jealousy with you privately. A child who believes he is understood feels better, even if the situation remains unchanged. Try to set aside time for each child--perhaps a special weekend activity or a one-on-one outing. However, don't think you can make it "all fair." Some kids simply need more attention; time cannot be "evened out." Give your attention to whoever needs it most.

Remember that siblings of children with academic challenges develop empathy early and learn that "different" doesn't mean "inferior." 

Marybeth Lambe, M.D., is a family practitioner. She and her husband are the parents of eight children.


Books for Kids About Learning Differences

  • The Don't-Give-Up Kid and Learning Differences
    by Jeanne Gehret and Sandra Ann Depauw
    (Verbal Images Press)

  • All Kinds of Minds: A Young Student's Book About Learning Abilities and Learning Disorders
    by Melvine D. Levine (Educators Publishing Service)

  • I Wish I Could Fly Like a Bird!
    by Katherine Denison and Tanya Weinberger (Wildwood Creative Enterprises)

  • Thank You, Mr. Falker
    by Patricia Polacco (Philomel Books)



Siblings squabble in every family, but quarrels arise more often if children perceive an unequal division of parental time or attention. How to keep the peace?

  • Don't compare your children to one another. Everyone has unique talents and gifts. Play those up, instead.

  • Give each child "protected turf." Everyone needs a special place to call his own. If each child doesn't have his own bedroom, this can be a special corner in the den or a windowseat.

  • Establish family rules and stick to them. Then use shorthand reminders, rather than lectures. "We use our words, not our fists." "Exchange feelings instead of accusations."

  • Don't get involved in your children's every squabble. If you're invited to settle an argument, say, "I think that's a problem you can solve on your own." But do get involved if a child's safety is in jeopardy.

  • Maintain individual connections with each child. This may mean having regular "dates" or one-on-one time after younger siblings have gone to bed.




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