My elder son resents his brother’s special needs – how can I help him understand? | Family


I have two wonderful sons aged seven and three. My issue is that my older son does not understand that his brother has additional needs and resents the extra attention he gets. My youngest is being assessed for autism, and has significant traits. He needs constant supervision and has routines that must be followed or he gets distressed. Our eldest finds this frustrating and blames his brother for ruining everything.

My eldest is very bright and engaging. He demands attention and has always been melodramatic, even at a young age. He gets frustrated his brother won’t play with him and says he’s weird.

When the youngest does his routines with chairs, toys, cups etc, the eldest will call him weird and seek to disrupt things. The youngest will react if what he is doing is messed up, but he ignores his older brother – and all other children – most of the time. I want them to have the best sibling relationship possible but it would help if my little one gave his brother something back.

We have told our older son that his brother needs more help with some things. I think he just thinks he’s being difficult or we’re pandering to him. A diagnosis is some way off – but I don’t want to label him prematurely. How can we make my eldest son understand more and be a bit more empathetic to his little brother? Any help much appreciated.

What a lot you all have on your plate. As a parent, you have all the usual hurdles with making things fair between siblings, and on top of that a younger child with additional needs. But as you say, your eldest is very young to understand it all. There’s a tendency to see older siblings as much bigger than they are when a younger sibling comes along.

I went to Sibs, which helps siblings of disabled children and adults, and spoke to Linda Owen, the information officer for young siblings. We thought you might be expecting your eldest son to understand a lot – too much. All you can really do at this age is acknowledge his feelings, not tell him what he should or shouldn’t be feeling.

“What’s most helpful,” Owen says, “is to say something like: ‘I know it’s annoying that we have to follow all these routines. That must make you really sad/frustrated.’” Even a simple “This is hard for you, isn’t it?” can be empowering. Try to acknowledge things from his point of view, instead of asking him to be OK with the situation, and to look at things from his brother’s.

Also remember: children blame themselves, so he may feel some of this is his fault.

“The danger here is that you don’t want your older son to feel he has to be good, to not cause any trouble,” says Owen. It must also be frustrating for your eldest if he feels he might never come first again, that his needs will never supersede his brother’s.

How much time do you spend just with your eldest? Owen recommends carving out regular, ringfenced time every day. “Better five minutes a day, every day, than an hour a week [that you may need to renege on].” Owen also recommends involving his school, if possible, and telling them what is going on for him.

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Young Sibs provides a service where your son can write in and get a personal response, and there is lots on its website that you and he can go through together. The links are below. But please remember to make time that’s also for him, and about him, and has nothing to do with his brother.

Useful links

Ask a Sibling advisor – for young (aged seven to 17) relatives of disabled children or adults to email and receive a personalised response

Autism – age-appropriate information for young siblings

Sibs website – for parents, professionals and adult siblings.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@theguardian.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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