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How to Avoid Raising a "Shadow Sibling"

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With the Olympics kicking off in a couple weeks, America's finest athletes will be competing to bring home the gold. As a parent of young kids, it leads me to think about the countless childhood hours that these athletes dedicated to training at the pool, in the gym or on the track. It also conjures up images of their parents shuttling them to and from their practices, scarfing down dinner on the go and helping with homework on-the-fly. I also picture the other sibling, the one in the back of the minivan with his headphones on or sitting in the gym with an iPad and a snack. What kind of impact does this lifestyle have on the sibling(s) of the family star?

Parents tend to believe they treat their children equally, but research ( shows it's not the case--we allocate our attention and resources to each child quite differently. For instance, we may recognize talent and potential in a child--a budding actress destined for the big screen or an Olympic hopeful, perhaps--and focus on propelling him or her to success. Often times, the investment is at the expense of lower achieving siblings who as a result of our commitment to the rising star in the family may receive less of our time and attention. The imbalance can lead to siblings growing up in the shadow of a high achieving sister or brother.

"There isn't any harm in parenting children differently, as each child is a unique person," says Juli Fraga, a psychologist in San Francisco. "But there is danger in showing favoritism to one child over the other, and also in comparing your children's accomplishments." While it's fairly remarkable for siblings to achieve equal levels of success (how many Bryan brothers or Gyllenhaal duos do you know?), raising a balanced family requires conscientiously recognizing each child's unique value, and investing appropriately in it. Here are six simple ways to do just that:

• Avoid putting a high achieving child's needs ahead of others.
In his parenting book Positive Pushing, Jim Taylor, Ph.D., an expert in performance psychology, says that prioritizing one child's needs over those of his sister or brother sends the wrong message--that love and attention have to be earned by achievement. A sibling who may not be as talented can feel that he is not worthy of love and that his needs are less important.

• Consciously distribute your energy and attention to each of your children.
The dance prodigy who has early morning practices or the soccer dynamo whose out-of-town tournaments take the place of family vacations may require more of your time, but each child deserves a fair share. "Kids who aren't given their fair share can be starved to be noticed," says Fraga. "As they reach adolescence, they may act out or rebel to gain the attention of their parents, even if the attention is negative." Keep it manageable by having each child choose one or two activities or interests.

• Show children that they are valued for who they are and not for what they do or accomplish.
Your goal is to ensure that each child feels loved and appreciated, regardless of accomplishments. Focusing on success or achievement can be burdensome to kids, saddling them with an overload of pressure and encouraging perfectionism. It leaves little room for human error, and little time for exploring other interests or skills.

• Help shadow siblings find their passion.
Numerous studies ( find that involvement in extracurricular activities benefits kids by boosting self-esteem, reducing behavioral problems, and contributing to higher grades and a positive attitude toward school. Take time to listen to and observe kids to help them identify their interests and potential. It's common for siblings to choose different interests, partly to vie for and secure parental attention, and often times to avoid competition with their sibling.

• Avoid making comparisons.
A parent may hold a child's success on a pedestal, using it as a motivator for siblings, but the constant comparison is often anything but motivating, says Fraga. Instead it can drive siblings away from each other, instilling a sense of competition, jealousy, and feelings of inadequacy.

• Help build positive sibling relationships.
Competition between siblings--for success and for a parent's attention and approval--can be healthy and motivating, but it can also build resentment, foster low self-esteem and unravel family relationships. Help siblings bond by minimizing comparisons, openly discussing individual strengths and needs, and fairly splitting family resources between them. Siblings who feel secure in their self worth and their place in the family can better relate and support one another.

Putting all your eggs in one basket by focusing on the super star in your family isn't healthy for anyone. Find the time to support each member of the family. They'll all shine