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Therapy and sanity for ordinary parents of special kids.

Sibling Rivalry: Special Needs Edition


Shut Up Sister Gina and her favorite daughter (pictured left and right).

Why can’t we all just get along?

I’m not talking about world peace, though that would be great. I’m thinking about peace a little closer to home – my home. 

Why can’t my daughters ages 20 and 17 get along?

Look I’m the first to admit, I couldn’t stand my sister growing up. She was seven years older, but our worlds were light years apart.  Now we’re inseparable – co-authors and speakers, business partners, neighbors, travel companions, best friends. We’re together so much that people have even mistaken us for life partners (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  My sister is even my Emergency Contact if I have an accident.  If someone told me that in childhood, I would have told them that she was more likely to cause me an accident. 

The change in our sisterhood was rather dramatic; it happened when she went off to college. I couldn’t wait for her to leave our cramped, shared 13 x 10 childhood bedroom.  But as soon as she left, I actually missed her.  

I missed having her in the room with me when I had a nightmare. I missed commiserating with her when our Mom was on a rampage about the status of our messy room (“You girls live like pigs.”). I missed her so much that I began writing her letters to update her on the important happenings at home – what we had for dinner, who our brother was dating, etc.  She actually looked forward to my letters (blogger’s note: she may have started drinking around that time) and would often say, “I had no idea you were funny.”

We’ve been best friends ever since. 

So when my two daughters (who didn’t even share a room) argued and fought in their younger years, I just assumed the same would happen to them when Katie, my oldest, went off to college. However, my younger daughter, Emily, quickly killed that idea when Katie came home that first weekend. 

“What’s she doing here?”

“Ah, Em, this is still her home.”

“Katielocks” wasn’t too pleased with her little sister, either.  

“Someone’s been sleeping in my bed. And wearing my clothes while I’m gone.”

Three years later, their relationship hasn’t improved all that much. I know that on some level they really do love each other, however, I have noticed instances of jealousy. Like that day I heard my younger daughter say,  “Katie, you think you’re so special walking around with your Asperger’s.”

I shouldn’t be surprised because sibling rivalry is part of every family (Just ask Jan Brady). It’s just that in special needs families, kids are jealous in different ways.  A dear friend reaffirmed this when she shared that her typical son was lamenting that she liked his brother with autism “better than him.” My friend, of course, set him straight.  

“No! That’s not true! It’s just that your little brother doesn’t talk back.”

“Ahhh, Mom, that’s because he’s non-verbal,” replied her son. 

My sister has witnessed strange sibling rivalry in her family, too.  Upon learning about his mother co-writing a book (Shut Up About Your Perfect Kid),  about his sister with a disability, her son, Michael, said,  “What! Why can’t you write a book about me?  I have all kinds of issues, Mom.”

My mother-in-law actually gave me a great tip for dealing with sibling rivalry.  She often told my husband he was her “favorite child.” It wasn’t until his Mom passed away and he shared this fact with his siblings that he got an unexpected surprise. 

 “Hey, Mom told me I was her favorite.”

“Me too.”

“Me three.”

“Me four.”

To this day, people still assure me my daughters will be best friends someday, but I’m just not seeing it. They are, after all, nothing alike. Even their differences are different. 

One likes to talk constantly on the phone; the other doesn’t answer hers.

One likes to be alone; the other can’t be alone.

One has too many friends; the other struggled to make one.

They are both so good about accepting differences in others, but can’t seem to accept each other’s differences. They do, however, have some great things in common:

They both are beautiful people inside and out.

They both are loving and know the value of family. 

They both have wonderful senses of humor.

They both won’t change a toilet paper roll.

I just hope someday they can get along and share the love and friendship I have with my sister. Our friendship is a tremendous gift;  we need and appreciate each other more than ever, especially now that our mother is gone. I hope when I’m gone, my girls will realize that gift. And more importantly, I hope they won’t spill my parenting secret. 

“Katie, did you know that Mom told me I was her favorite child?”

“Hey, she told me I was!”


Do you have special sibling rivalry in your home?




3 Responses to Sibling Rivalry: Special Needs Edition

  1. HDMama March 31, 2016 at 10:46 pm #

    I love this…thank you for sharing. We definitely have special sibling rivalry and it breaks my heart for both of them. I know how difficult it can be for my typical daughter – she seems to always be the one making compromises/sacrifices and I’m sure she feels like the “unloved one” (never mind that we do SO much on our own with her and leave her brother behind just so she isn’t completely missing out on life because he can’t cope in the settings she thrives in). And my son (with Asperger’s) can never understand why his sister gets so angry with him over seemingly nothing – even when he just wants her to do something with him, he gets so hurt because she rejects him. But she gives up a lot so I don’t want to force her to also play with him or hang out with him just when it suits him….I just wish she would recognize how SPECIAL it is when he does want to interact with her and that she wanted to do it. But, saying all that – I know when we are not around – she looks out for him and that if anyone ever upsets him or does something to him, she is right there to help him and she can get a little scary to other kids when they are mean to him. So I know they love each other, but I hope that it will just come naturally one day and not only when he’s in a bad situation.

  2. Shelli S March 31, 2016 at 10:53 pm #

    Ahhhh, I thought the ‘you’re my favorite child’ was my private go to harmonious secret.

    Actually, there is a great book called “You Are All My Favorites”. I have read it to them for years, and sometimes it is just what is needed to settle the argument.

  3. Betsy Lane Goode April 8, 2016 at 12:29 am #

    (1) I liked the idea that ran in my family that if kids were bickering there was something more the *parents* needed to be giving both of them. Not that the kids needed to be ‘made’ to change, necessarily. That baby mammals fight to deliberately bring the adults in closer. This has always worked for me. Adding ASD to the mix, or any disability, does make things more complicated, but only a little IMHO.
    (speaking as a disability rights activist.) Having a shared ‘analysis,’ a world view that accounts for these specific differences AND for the ways that more typical people behave/assume/etc also really helps.
    (2) The analogue in my own family now is that we are not all of the same geographic (formerly known as ‘racial’) origins or heritage — some are brown, some pink, etc. Sharing an understanding that there is nothing to ‘mix’ when people from different continents intermarry was crucial — all humans are genetically identical and share all the same traits and abilities; the surface traits are adaptations with no genetic significance. Sharing an understanding that people have always gotten together with people from other groups, it is perfectly natural and common, also helped. Etc Etc Perhaps for your family, sharing an understanding that disability and variation is a part of nature would help. And for the kids, making space for each one to share the full profile of their disgruntlement, and have that explored and respected and not corrected, might help get to problem-solving for everyone’s problems. “You think I prefer him to you? Why do you think that?” Listen to the details, etc without trying to modify or deny..

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