The Notion of Fairness and the Challenges of Parenting the Sensitive Child and the Neurotypical Child Within the Same Family
“That’s so unfair!” Ah, the familiar refrain heard by all parents, but for those who parent siblings, it is something heard repeated minute to minute, day after day. It is a widely known fact that two siblings living in the same home, growing up with the same two parents can have wildly different experiences of being raised. These differences may depend on a child’s gender and the sociocultural norms associated with that gender; or to which parent each child feels the most connected; the child’s age; or the division of financial and other resources between the siblings; and many other countless factors. As parents, we do our best to try to strike the fine balance of honoring each individual child for who they are, yet maintain a baseline of expectations for the household. We know all too well there are few forces greater than a child’s sense of injustice where a sibling is concerned and we do our best to maintain peace in the household.
So, what happens in families where one sibling is considered neurotypical in learning, social skills development and ability to form connections, and the other sibling has learning differences, heightened environmental sensitivities, greater emotional and physiological reactivity and a more cautious nature? An all too common yet very tricky situation! When there are actual and perceived differences in a parent’s attention to, and care of a sibling, simply because one sibling’s needs are greater than the other– how do we as parents balance the experience for the sibling who has the skills to be more self-sufficient? How do we ensure that both children feel truly loved and accepted for exactly who they are? How, as a parent, do you give sufficient “face time” to all your children so that it strengthens familial connections and leaves each child feeling positive about themselves and secure in your love?
Before we answer these questions, it is important to understand the dynamics at play in these families and what is happening in the world of the child with greater sensitivities. Dr. W. Thomas Boyce, in his deeply engaging interview on NPR, talked about the research he has published on what makes life especially challenging for a small percentage of children with heightened sensitivities. These children “stand out” in a family’s daily dynamic because they require far more support and attention to navigate daily life successfully while the greater percentage of children can thrive in all but the most challenging of environments. In Dr. Boyce’s book, The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why some children struggle, and how all can thrive, he talks about what sets “orchid” children apart from “dandelion” children. “Orchid children” have full potential to thrive, but do experience greater sensitivities to their environment, an aversion to new environments, people and experiences, greater susceptibilities to illness later in life and greater challenges in negotiating daily stress and adversity. This makes them experience the world from a different lens, usually being more cautious when trying new things that take them away from predictability and routine. Orchid children tend also to have a range of sensory sensitivities that make triggers like loud noises, certain tastes and some textures very alarming to the point of being intolerable and distressing. In contrast, “dandelion children prosper and thrive almost anywhere they’re planted.”
Dr. Boyce talks about some specific ways parents can help “orchid children” manage themselves better in their environments, so that they can truly thrive. He recommends that parents maintain a regular, predictable rhythm to the day for their “orchid children” in a warm, nurturing and loving environment. “Orchid children” will need gentle encouragement at the right time to engage in new experiences that can then afford them the feeling of mastery over that experience, while not pushing them past their comfort zones. The recommendation of gently encouraging and pushing an “orchid child,” or one who learns differently and is by nature, much more cautious, to accomplish a new challenge, can be a truly challenging task for parents. Dr. Boyce states that, “The families of orchid children must also seek and achieve a well-tempered balance between measured protection and emboldened exposure.” He goes on to explain:
“On the one hand, because orchid kids are prone to an easily triggered physiological reactivity, a certain level of parental insulation from the world’s abundant challenges is often a needed and helpful protection…On the other hand, the parenting of an orchid child must never be solely about protection and sheltering; parents must also know when to push, when to nudge, when to encourage a child’s venturing into unknown and even uncomfortable psychological and physical territory. For it is the successes in such terra incognita that will foster the child’s growth, revealing her capacity for mastering situations that seem at first impossible to abide.”
If these same factors appear optimal for all children to thrive, they truly make the difference between success and catastrophic failure for “orchid children.” This level of support can be difficult for parents to maintain on their own. There are other solutions available. Kevin Ashworth, of the Northwest Anxiety Institute in Portland, Oregon, talks about exposing our children to very small amounts of anxiety at a time, in order to gain mastery over a certain fear or challenge, rather than avoid it altogether which doesn’t allow them to make any progress. The slow but steady process of exposure is called “Exposure Response Prevention.” It is a very specific type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy designed to help children, teens and adults alike identify the root of anxiety and work to eliminate it over time through exposure in small, measured and supported ways with a trained therapist.
While it is good to know that there are support systems in place to help depleted parents best help their little budding “orchid children” it does not address what happens at home between the siblings and the feelings of resentment that occur as a result of all the attention and care needed by the “orchid child.” Here, I want to stress this point for those who have not experienced raising a child that would be categorized as an “orchid.” It is vitally important to understand that “orchids” and other differently learning children have more difficulty engaging with ease in the world around them. Research shows these children have adverse physical/ physiological reactions from the increased stress they experience in their daily life. The difficulties they experience is not their fault but how their brains process the world around them. In contrast, the ease by which the neurotypical child moves through the world can make it difficult to understand why, under the same roof, one child is struggling with just about everything while the other seems to be easily gliding along. This disparity can be cause of much conflict in the home. One sibling’s ease in developing friendships and engaging with the world around him, can cause resentment to arise and self-esteem to decline in the sensitive “orchid” sibling. This sibling may struggle to make connections. At the same time, the neurotypical sibling may notice a lot more attention being paid by parents to the sibling, whether to help him weather an emotional storm or coax him to try an activity that is essential in the development process but feels highly anxiety producing. This too may raise frustrations and resentments on the part of the neurotypical child.
In an effort to resolve these resentments there needs to be a deeper understanding of the dynamics at play. I believe one of the key conversations between parents and siblings is the idea of fair vs equal. Help siblings understand that everything being equal is a fairly low bar. Let’s take a look at why this is the case. In a world where parents strive to be equal in terms of resources, a new toothbrush for Fred would mean a new toothbrush for Jane, in order to keep things equal. But what if Jane didn’t need a new toothbrush, hers was perfectly fine and she didn’t want to part with it, but instead she did crave a pair of woolen socks to keep her little feet warm in the winter? In a world which parents strove for fairness instead of equality, each child got what they needed, so Fred would get a new toothbrush with which to polish his pearly whites, and Jane would welcome home a new pair of socks because her toes needed warmth. Each child’s individual needs are seen and met and not merely blanketed with equal treatment. In the situation of siblings with different learning/emotional needs, this might mean mom devotes more time to creating a safe holding environment in which the sibling with the differently-abled brain could express intense emotions, but then spends more time working on a puzzle or building a 3D model with her neurotypical child, thereby engaging him in a way that is most in alignment with his needs and wishes. Mobilizing your natural support network of extended family members, friends and neighbors can help take the pressure off of parents who cannot always tend to the needs of all the siblings at the same time. This extended support network might be able to supervise the neurotypical sibling at home doing their homework or can take them to sports practices when there is a scheduling conflict with their differently-learning sibling’s adjunct therapies. This would make a significant difference in the neurotypical child’s ability to experience a sense of continuity and consistency with regards to his own schedule, which would lessen resentment and a perceived sense of favoritism by the neurotypical sibling.
Another expression of promoting fairness over keeping things equal is in the assignment of chores. Chores are assigned to each child’s ability and skill set, so that each can feel successful as a contributing member of the family. This idea can be generalized in order to create opportunities where the sibling who tends to be more reticent can excel, and even teach the neurotypical sibling a thing or two about a particular activity or topic. Showing a level of mastery can be immensely empowering for the differently-abled child, boosting her self-esteem and allowing her to see herself with unique gifts and capacities. For example, a child with hyperfocus, typical in ADHD, may have an exquisitely intricate understanding of neighborhood trees, as this is an area of interest for her. Allow her to lead the family on a nature walk in a neighborhood park, identifying trees and sharing their defining characteristics. Another example would be a child who tends to have difficulty with gross motor coordination, where playing fast moving sports feels too challenging to be enjoyable, may find much joy in arts and crafts or music, and can host his own art show at home for family and friends to share his talents.
Another aspect to watch out for as parents is to not allow ourselves to assign a role for each sibling. Allow each child to thrive in the space of childhood without becoming her sibling’s keeper or without automatically assuming that the differently-abled child cannot stand up for himself and needs a parent or sibling to protect or defend him in times of conflict. Play the role of mediator when siblings need to be separated because of a conflict. By allowing each to share their side of the story and encouraging each sibling to integrate the left mode of processing of the brain by relaying the factual, linear sequence of events and integrating them with the brain’s right mode of processing by sharing the feelings or meaning each child assigns to the conflict, the children will both feel heard and respected. This storytelling give the executive functions of their brains time to catch up with their heightened emotions and to calm down. Upon sharing their stories and listening to one another’s version of the conflict, each child can be asked to do some deep breathing, or simply take a few minutes break, before reconvening with the parent to find a solution that is fair and just to all. This has the additional benefit for each sibling to hear the other’s perspective, which in turn builds empathy.
In his book, The Whole Brain Child, Dr. Dan Siegel recommends that conflict between siblings be handled incorporating three facets that build mindsight, the ability to look into one’s own mind, and the mind of another. He summarized that, “Insight + Empathy = Mindsight. If we can encourage the attributes of insight and empathy in our kids, we will give them the gift of mindsight, offering them awareness about themselves, and connections with those around them.” This is especially important when it comes to children who have siblings with some form of neuro-diversity, for their perspective can be very different from that of the neurotypical child.
So what builds empathy and insight? Well, to get a little neuroscience nerdy here, it is the firing of our mirror neurons. The research shows that mirror neurons only fire in response to intentional acts that offer some way of knowing what will happen next. For example, we know when someone peels a banana, they tend to eat it, and this will make us hungry for that banana, or perhaps even have the opposite response if bananas just aren’t our thing. When talking about these mirror neurons, Dr. Siegal describes research from the 1990s with macaque monkeys, whereby the specific neurons in the monkey’s brain would fire when the monkey consumed a peanut. But these very same neurons would fire when the monkey observed a researcher consume a peanut. These specific neurons in monkeys and human brains, were named mirror neurons and are believed to be the key to empathy. Still more fascinating is that we can mirror not only what others intend to do, but how they might feel, courtesy of special sponge neurons, as Dr. Siegel describes:
We soak up like a sponge what we see in the behaviors, intentions and emotions of someone else. We don’t just “mirror back” to someone else, but we “sponge in” their internal states.
Very interesting indeed, but what does this all mean in terms of conflict resolution between siblings? Well, if we can develop and nurture the gift of mindsight in our children, both neurotypical and neuro-diverse, we encourage our kids to see the conflict through each other’s eyes. You may ask your son how his little sister might have felt when he knocked over her block tower and responded by pounding her powerful little fist down on his foot. You might say, “Why do you think she got so upset when you knocked it over? How might she have been feeling when she got it built up so high? And then how would she feel when it got knocked down?” This once again allows for those mirror and sponge neurons to light up and new perspectives are (hopefully) gained.
Additionally, we can teach our kids to build non-verbal communication skills, tuning in to others and using clues from their body posture and facial expression to surmise what is not being said. This can be difficult for some kids, especially those with any pervasive visual/ spatial learning challenges so it is a good thing to practice in the safety of your family unit. In the example I give above, big brother may not have noticed little sister’s defensive body language as he came dangerously close to her newly built, tall block tower. He missed the cues and ended up getting her fist painfully on his foot!
The third skill of connection-based conflict resolution is to teach children to go beyond a “sorry.” This goes for all children. Having kids take some meaningful action after a conflict creates opportunity for a child to think about the sibling who was hurt by the conflict, and try to think of something that might make her feel better. In the above example, big brother might offer to build a new tower with little sister.
The busyness of daily schedules can be very stressful for children regardless of whether they are neurotypical (dandelions) or neuro-diverse (orchids). The needs and expectations of school, extracurricular activities, adjunct therapies and treatments, and individual and family social expectations can oftentimes leave kids feeling thoroughly exhausted by week’s end. To offer some balance to the “shoulds” and the “musts” and the needs of the school week, I believe that parents need to focus on unstructured time for their kids, prioritizing activity preferences over skills at least some of the time. It is very important. Protecting unstructured time as much as possible, especially during the weekend opens up opportunities for spontaneity, playfulness and fun between family members, especially between siblings. This serves to improve connection with the family as a whole.
Help each child soak up the beauty of engaging in an activity of their choice for the pure joy of doing that activity, without giving concern to evaluation, without needing to be good at it for it to count. If your child likes to draw or paint, or tinkers about on a guitar, offer them a rental guitar, or art supplies, and access to what they’d like to draw, without signing them up for a class right away, unless they ask you to do so. Allow them to find their own way and decide for themselves how to learn and develop this interest; allow them to define what is mastery for them. This keeps the neurotypical child away from perhaps feeling like having to produce in order to get recognition from parents who are preoccupied with their sibling’s greater needs. This also allows a differently-learning child the space to be creative on her own terms, without needing to compete with her sibling, or feel an unnecessary sense of incompetence.
Establishing regular, weekly family meetings is a great way for families to come together and lay out the schedule and goals for the week, alerting an especially sensitive child to upcoming changes in the environment so they can be prepared for mentally, long before they have to be addressed in actuality. A family meeting can embrace each family member’s opinions for what needs to be changed in the family for optimum success, and every voice is given a space for sharing ideas and opinions. Amy McCready, author of If I Have To Tell You One More Time… offers a structure for the family meeting that involves space to share appreciations and compliments, concerns and grievances, goals that each member is working on individually and goals the family is working on together, and a look at the week’s schedule for any activities, appointments and social events. The meeting should end on a high note, with a snack and a fun family activity. In our home we add to the meeting structure one thing each person thinks the other is doing well, and one thing they would like to ask of the other. It is incredibly empowering for kids to have their voices heard on issues of importance to them, and eye opening for parents to hear their children’s thoughts on how they experience daily family life. Respect and mindsight for each individual in the family is what leads to fairness and equity, which, in turn, hopefully leads to a more peaceful and happier home.
Further Reading & Additional Resources
To hear the interview with Dr. Thomas Boyce: https://www.npr.org/2019/03/04/700068108/the-orchid-vs-the-dandelion-the-science-of-sensitive-kids
Dr. W. Thomas Boyce (2019) The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle, and How All Can Thrive.
Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson (2011) The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies To Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.
Amy McCready (2012) If I Have To Tell You One More Time…
Vinay Gaglani is a Pacific Northwester of Indian descent who aspires to be a peaceful parent to her two amazing young boys. Vinay is a Licensed Professional Counselor by trade, and a lover of hiking and drinking tea!