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In the Shadow of a Sibling

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

Parents of twice exceptional kids – the ones that are both gifted and with learning differences – are well aware of how hard it is to raise them. It’s confusing enough when you only have one child, but what if you have more than one? You’d think that the overall difficulty of raising multiple kids would, speaking in mathematical terms, be upper bounded by the difficulty coefficient for raising one child multiplied by the number of kids you have, since, presumably, the experience you’ve gained with the first would apply to the next, thus lowering the amount of effort required. However, in my experience this is not the case. In fact, the effect might be the opposite: my kids are two very different people, and what I’ve learned with one rarely works with the other. Furthermore, sibling rivalry becomes a thing in both conventional and unconventional sense. When I confided my dilemma to one of the professionals we were working with, I was met with “clearly, you are meant to write a book about it”. The book is still in the works. For now, I am starting small – with blogging.

So, back to the kids. Though my kids have different personalities, needs, and ways of processing the world, this post is not about that. The focus of this post is on the unexpected side-effect of what I call unconventional rivalry: how to handle one sibling being in the shadow of another, when the abilities of one are juxtaposed with those of the other. This shadow could represent different things for different kids or even different periods of time for the same kid. And though often this overshadowing is done by the older child onto the younger, just because they are older and develop sooner, the reverse happens too. And so it becomes critical to cultivate the sense of their identity in each child and help them accept themselves for who they are – individuals with unique passions and strengths.

When my husband and I found out that our older child was profoundly gifted and on the spectrum, we, understandably, put all our efforts into, on the one hand, finding him the right therapies, and on the other – finding ways to satisfy his appetite for knowledge. His younger sister was left on the sidelines. To some extent, I think it was inevitable, but I wish I was more in tune with my daughter then. I was guilty of thinking she was just a more neurotypical kid who did not need as much attention and was not as gifted. I think I was trying very hard not to be that mom who always brags about her kids and treats them as special, and to an extent I subconsciously diminished my daughter’s intelligence. Until we tested her and found out that she is just as profoundly gifted as our son, but her stealth dyslexia and overall personality make her intelligence manifest itself in non-obvious, non-academic ways. Furthermore, even though “recent research indicated that in many cases siblings are within ten IQ points of each other”, giftedness in girls is often overlooked because they face a range of social pressures at school, and “the desire for friends, a disinclination to stand out, fear of ridicule, along with the need for acceptance, often impel gifted girls to make their abilities appear ordinary or even nonexistent”.

In hindsight, I probably contributed to my daughter’s lack of self-confidence in areas that my son excels at – for example, science. He knows so much about science – it’s one of his strengths – that in her view she knows nothing about it because she compares herself to him. We are still working on trying to convince her that she is good at science too, because she is. Ultimately, the message we are trying to send to our kids now is that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and that's ok. And it’s even ok not to be the best in your area of strength. It’s not about what everybody else is and has – it’s about figuring out what you need and learning to be comfortable with and accepting of who you are. Just like it is fruitless to compare apples and oranges (pun absolutely intended), though extremely tempting, it is unproductive to compare one individual to another – after all, we call ourselves individuals for a reason. The trick is to compare yourself only to yourself and take pride in your own growth. And that’s why it is imperative for the other sibling to find their niche: something that differentiates them from others, something they are good at, something they enjoy, their passion. This will allow them to be seen as their own person, build their confidence and self-efficacy, and ultimately flourish.

We are lucky because we managed to discover our daughter’s strength relatively quickly and effortlessly – it’s art. All we had to do is expose her to diverse activities and notice things she gravitated towards on her own. She has always been creative: from picking out her own clothes and combining different pieces into a unique outfit from a very young age to having a vivid imagination and telling stories as if they happened in real life. She has also always loved doodling, and to my untrained eye seemed to be good at it. Our suspicions turned out to be true when she started taking official art classes. Our daughter is an amazing artist and likes crafts too. Art is where she can express herself and feel good about herself. She experiments with different media, including acrylic, ink, and markers. She also enjoys pottery and felting. And recently got into digital art and animation and is becoming a pro at Procreate (another pun, ha!). Art also happens to be something our son is not into at all. Amusingly, our daughter is doing so well right now, having found her niche, that one might say that she switched places with our son and is getting her share of sunlight, leaving him in the shadows to wither with the struggles that come with puberty. But I know that this phase in his life will pass as well, and there will be plenty of sunshine for both of them.


About the Author: Guest blogger Yekaterina (Katrina) O’Neil is a homeschooling mom by day, a doctoral student by night, and a software security researcher by trade. The mom to two 2e kids in middle and high school, she began homeschooling them after public school turned out not to be a fit. To understand and support her kids better, Katrina is pursuing a Doctoral Degree at Bridges Graduate School of Cognitive Diversity in Education, while attempting to juggle a career in cybersecurity at the same time. She is passionate about neurodiversity and hopes to spread awareness and acceptance of neurodivergent individuals at home, at school, and in the workplace.She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Computer Science & Engineering from UC San Diego.

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