From the November 2019 issue

Teaching Siblings to Share the Spotlight

It's a common situation for siblings: One's soaking up the parents' attention while another's sulking. How sensitive should parents be to splitting the attention?

Girl looks sad with girl singing in the background
Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

Children enjoy when their talents, achievements and milestones are celebrated. But some parents feel uneasy when one child is singled out for attention while a sibling is left on the sidelines.

To compensate, they may call out the other’s special qualities, trying to equalize the praise.

Even the seemingly benign birthday of a sibling can stir up concerns. “We keep the peace by giving the non-birthday child a present, too,” admits mom of three Jill Robbins in a SheKnows post.

But just because the sun shines on Jane for a day doesn’t mean Johnny won’t have shining moments of his own. Can’t Jane have her moment in the spotlight?

When kids are different

Kristine Persinger knew it was impossible to level the playing field for her three sons. Still, she had to navigate their varying levels of achievement, starting with an oldest son who always had a clear idea of where he was going and how to get there.

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“So, over the course of time, he has achieved more than his brothers because he had that drive.”

But the kudos he earned didn’t always sit well with her middle child, who is more of a creative person, says the Madison Heights resident.

“Nick would say, ‘Everybody thinks Anthony is great, and I’m not doing much of anything.’ But I’d remind him, your brother is racking up things that can be seen, where your victories tend to be a little quieter.”

It also meant he had to tag along to his brother’s events.

“When Nick complained, ‘We’re going to another thing for Anthony?’ Well, yeah, he worked his butt off,” Persinger says. “If you want to be up front and praised, you’ve got to do something. That’s when he got a little more involved in activities. He saw if you want something, you have to make it happen.”

Sibling sensitivities

“The reality is, life isn’t fair sometimes. At times, one sibling will get a lot of attention and the other won’t, and vice versa. And that has nothing to do with love,” says Birmingham psychotherapist Terry Matlen.

If the sibling who isn’t receiving the extra attention seems distressed, “Ask them, ‘How do you feel when John is in finals at the soccer game?’ Let them express their feelings if they have to attend a whole lot of games and aren’t happy about it.”

But it isn’t necessary to even things up – and certainly not on birthdays.

“There’s really no need to give the older child a gift when it’s the younger one’s birthday,” Matlen adds.

When parents feel the need to make things fair, they might be responding to their own childhood slights – or a sense that “life is unfair in the moment” – work schedules that prevent them from being with their children as much as they’d like, for example.

Either way, it’s an opportunity for self-reflection, Matlen says. “Why do I have such strong feelings about fairness when things aren’t fair?”

If it’s time for a correction, Matlen suggests thinking of the “natural unfairness” of giving an older child a later bedtime.

“Do you try and make it fair to the younger one by letting them stay up later? No, we don’t have the need to make that fair, and it’s another life lesson.”

This too shall pass

And yet – sibling rivalry still rears its ugly head. “I thought my daughters were too many years apart (to feel jealous when the other is in the spotlight), but it’s happened within my eyesight, too,” says Pam Vaughan, a Bloomfield Hills psychotherapist.

“I will go check in and say, ‘What’s up?’ But if they can’t voice it or tell me, I’ll let it go. It’s a passing moment.”

Parents that can’t let it go would do well to remember the child’s anxiety will pass, she says. “We don’t have to keep spoon feeding ‘atta boys’ and ‘atta girls’ at them. It sets kids up to be dependent on an outside source to feel better about themselves. But that’s something that has to come from within.

The more experiences where we feel discomfort, the faster we learn: I can self-soothe, I can make myself feel better.”

Extreme sibling rivalry

But for some kids, sharing the spotlight isn’t easy, especially if they are a force to be reckoned with.

“She was like hell on wheels – so precocious, the first grandchild on both sides, and totally the center of everyone’s attention,” Carol Gillis says about her daughter. After her twin sons were born, “I almost put her in the spotlight too much,” hoping she didn’t feel ignored when the twins drew attention.

“We tried to spread the love and say, ‘Oh, you are the big sister,’ but she wanted all the attention.” Her personality demanded it, the West Bloomfield resident says. And her accomplishments later on as a high-achieving student who won forensics contests and starred in school plays kept her in the spotlight.

Yet “inside, she didn’t feel all the confidence her outer layer showed, and that’s where some of her demons came in later on,” Gillis says. “No one would believe that because she was such a powerhouse. But inside she was a delicate person. It really shows the complexity of the situation.”

Even so, Gillis sees the irony in the everyone-gets-a-trophy mentality. “It’s almost like we’re trying to eliminate competition. But the hard reality is, life is competitive. Not everybody is going to be equally successful at the same things.”

So how do you raise kids who are willing to share the spotlight?

Focus on their strengths. Regarding her twins, West Bloomfield mom Carol Gillis says, “We always worked hard to find their unique strengths and talents and to reinforce them. Sometimes they didn’t see them because they were ‘this’ and wanted to be ‘that’ instead. But as time went on and our sons got older, it was easier for them to take the spotlight” and share it with each other.

Accept their individuality. “We always made a huge effort not to compare or to say, ‘Why can’t you be more like your brother?'” says Kristine Persinger of Madison Heights. One had a lot of drive, one had less but still had his talents, and the third could take or leave the attention.

“Now that they are 25, 21 and 19, each is such a good person in their own sphere that they support each other to a huge extent. If one of them is doing something, the other two are right there cheering him on.”

When it’s your turn to praise, make sure it’s genuine.

“Then your child can tolerate if someone else is being acknowledged,” says Ferndale-based clinical psychologist Carrie Nantais. Plus, when people feel acknowledged in their moment, they are generous in celebrating other people, she adds. “The hang-up happens when they don’t get enough real recognition.”

Still, be considerate. “Try to think about that other child standing there. Don’t act like they are invisible,” Gillis says.

Remember – life isn’t fair. “We do kids a real disservice if the sense for the parents is (the spotlight must be) equally shared, because that’s not how things work in real life,” says Birmingham psychotherapist Terry Matlen.

Also remember – kudos must be earned. “When one (child) does well in something, we feel it’s unfair to praise and reward that one and not the other,” says Dr. Tim Elmore, founder and president of Growing Leaders, on Forbes.com. “This is unrealistic and misses an opportunity to enforce the point to our kids that success is dependent upon our own actions and good deeds.”

Their time will come. “You have to let the kid shine, you have to let the kid feel like it’s a big deal when it’s their time,” says Northville resident and mother of three Lyn Presnal. “We’ve always celebrated each child as an individual so our other children celebrate with them and for them. They know their time will come around, too.”

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