Treating kids fairly is tough enough, but when one stands out, it can truly be a challenge. We'll help you give everyone the attention they deserve.

child in the spotlight
Credit: Brian Maranan Pineda

While other 4-year-olds were learning their ABCs, Nathan Reynolds was already penning stories. At age 6, he tested at a seventh-grade level in math and reading. Though his parents, Tony and Karen, are delighted by their son's precociousness, it hasn't been without challenges. Between time-consuming intelligence testing and the fraught decision to skip him ahead in school, managing Nathan's supercharged intellect has placed serious demands on the Columbus, Ohio, couple. What's more, they're constantly concerned about keeping Nathan's siblings from feeling jealous of the attention he gets. "His brother sometimes gripes, 'Nathan is the smart one,'" Tony says.

Whether you have a star who steals the limelight with musical talent or athletic abilities, or a child with behavior or health issues who requires extra care, brothers and sisters can end up feeling slighted. "All kids need to feel acknowledged and validated by their parents. But when one child demands more of your time and energy, it's even more crucial to make sure your other kids know they're valued," says psychotherapist Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent. Fortunately, just recognizing that need for attention is the first step toward maintaining a balanced household. Learn how to make sure everyone in your family feels loved and appreciated.

Focus on the Positive

Shortly after Nell Buchman, of Waupaca, Wisconsin, found out that her son, Philip, then 8, would need to undergo major surgery to remove a growth from his ear, she began to notice a change in her daughter, Charlotte, who was 5 at the time. "She began having the kind of tantrums she had as a toddler," Buchman says.

Charlotte's reaction isn't unusual. Young kids don't always distinguish between good and bad attention; if you're preoccupied with a sibling, your child may find that the easiest way to get your eye is to act out. How to deal? "Concentrate on catching your child being good and try to respond to misbehavior with a neutral voice," says Abigail Davenport Verre, a board-certified behavior analyst in Westford, Massachusetts. "She probably knows what she''s doing is wrong. Spending a lot of time reprimanding her only reinforces that this gets you to focus on her." For example, if she makes it through her brother's cello recital drama-free, applaud her own good performance by saying, "I'm impressed with how patient you were at the concert today. As a treat, you can pick the movie we all watch tonight." Not only will this reinforce the appropriate behavior, it reminds your kid that she's got a voice within the family too.

Related Features:

sibling in the spotlight
Credit: Brian Maranan Pineda

More Tips to Treat Your Kids Fairly

Carve Out "Just Us" Time

The easiest way to let your child know he's important? Spend time alone with him. It doesn't really matter what you do. "Just make sure you're getting some private space to talk and share feelings," says Frank Lawlis, Ph.D., author of Mending the Broken Bond: The 90-Day Answer to Developing a Loving Relationship With Your Child. On days when you've been busy, say, shuttling your daughter to physical therapy, take ten minutes as you tuck in your son to recap his day. Either you or your partner should also try to carve out at least an hour each week for a one-on-one activity with him -- like shooting hoops at the park. (Everyday errands can double as bonding time too. You might say, "Want to come with me to the market? I'd love to hang out together, and you can help choose something yummy for dinner.")

Finally, if you expect one child to steal even more stares than usual (perhaps her big gymnastics meet is this weekend), schedule a solo event for your other child soon afterward, says school psychologist Janet Dubner, of Chelmsford, Massachusetts. It'll be easier for him to sit back while his sister takes the stage if he knows he has a date with you or Dad coming up. (Just don't overcompensate and make your other kid jealous.)

Value the Child You've Got

All siblings compete, but if one of your kids is constantly getting praise it can magnify normal sibling rivalry. "If a child sees her sibling as 'good at everything,' she may even adopt the identity of being 'bad at everything,'" Dr. Lawlis notes. So avoid making comparisons. Keep in mind that every child has her own strengths; you can give your cutie's self-confidence a lift (while reducing competition) by pointing them out. "Remind her that she's special and tell her why," Verre says. Focus on what makes her unique, like her sense of humor or a knack for knowing how other people feel -- and how to cheer them up. Then let her know her abilities don't go unnoticed. ("You always make me smile when I have a bad day. I appreciate that -- and everyone in this family does too.")

Related Features:

More Ways to Balance Affection

Let Kids Explore Their Own Interests

Encouraging your child to embrace an activity that's his alone will help him feel he's stepped out of his sibling's shadow. "Part of giving a child a positive identity means finding out what he's interested in," Dr. Lawlis says. If your kid doesn't have a hobby that his sibling isn't involved in, help him discover something he can feel good about. If he loves to move, you might sign him up for some rock-climbing sessions. If he's always taking over your iPod, maybe he'd enjoy guitar lessons.

This approach worked for Lea Guse, of Appleton, Wisconsin, whose firstborn struggles with emotional and behavioral disorders. When her youngest, Jessica, was 6, she signed her up for a dance class. "The best thing about dance is that it's Jessica's alone," Guse explains. "The other students don't talk about what her brother was doing at lunch like they do at school. Plus, the time I spend driving her and talking about dance is time she doesn't have to share with him."

Be Honest with Your Kid

The truth is that you and your partner may not be able to give your children equal attention. It can help to be upfront about it when your kid complains, Dr. Walfish says. Try: "I spend a lot of time at your sister's tutoring sessions. I know that's really frustrating. I would feel the same way if I were you." Acknowledging her resentment won't necessarily make it disappear, but she'll feel better knowing that she's been heard. And learning to handle disappointment is actually key for her in the long run. "It will help her grow up to be a resilient adult who can accept letdowns and bounce back quickly," Dr. Walfish explains.

Similarly, it's important to be open with your child about any changes to her sibling's diagnosis or treatment program. "Kids may fear what they don't know, and what they're thinking is often worse than the reality," Dubner notes. "Even if they don't say 'Mom, I'm scared,' their behavior may shift because they're uneasy." Talking about the situation in language your child can understand will help her feel comfortable with what's going on and how the family will deal with it.

Indeed, taking this approach worked wonders for Buchman's daughter, Charlotte. When Buchman started taking her along to her son's doctor's appointments, it cut down on her youngest's tantrums. "We saw how she reacted to hearing the physicians talk about Philip's upcoming surgery and could address her concerns right away," Buchman notes. Moreover, including Charlotte in big discussions sent her the message that she mattered and was as important a part of the family as everyone else.

Related Features:

Signs of Struggle

These behaviors may indicate that your child is feeling left out.

boy upset
Credit: Brian Maranan Pineda
  • He reverts to habits that he's long since kicked, like sucking his thumb.
  • She suddenly experiences separation anxiety even though she's usually comfortable leaving your side.
  • Your good-natured kid suddenly starts throwing tantrums, disobeying authority, and generally acting out.
  • He unexpectedly withdraws and seems sad or refuses to participate in a favorite hobby or activity.

Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

Related Features:

Parents Magazine