3 Tips for Parents of Struggling Students with Overachieving Siblings


“Please stop graduating.” I remember reading this line quite vividly in an otherwise comical card from my younger brother. It was both a sarcasticStruggling students with overachieving siblings comment - he’d suffered through my high school, undergraduate, graduate and second graduate school graduations - and a serious one.  He was sick and tired of being outdone academically.  

The interesting truth that my brother may not have known at the time of said comment is that I wasn’t as academically inclined as I may have seemed. While my brother could gaze over notes for 20 minutes and then easily ace an exam, I had to put in a ton of time to study. When my brother was learning a second foreign language, I was desperately scrambling for a B- in my first foreign language. Being five years apart, we were never in the same school at the same time. In middle school, he most likely thought that my high school work should be taking me much longer. When I was in college, he probably assumed he’d have to pull all-nighters when he got there, too. But I could look back and recognize that the time I’d invested at each stage was significantly longer than the time he was investing. And I don’t think he ever knew that.

Siblings are not the only ones sizing each other up (even if those estimations are inaccurate, as my example illustrates). Parents wind up comparing their own children, especially in cases where one child struggles and the other is a superstar. Oftentimes, one sibling sits right down to do homework every night without a peep while the other cannot tear herself away from social media long enough to look at her social studies textbook. But the fact is, even with shared DNA, siblings are often more different than they are alike. And that includes their approaches to academics. Which raises the question: How can parents deal with these frustrating differences without turning the homefront into the front line?    

Consider the following 3 tips gleaned from years of personal and professional experience with struggling students who have superstar siblings.

1) Watch Your Language

Many of us use comparison language without really recognizing we’re doing it. For example, we might press Bobby, the elder son, with this commonly-asked question: “Why can’t you get right to your homework after school like Billy does?” When we do, it’s coming from a place of frustration; we can’t help but inquire about the drastic difference we’re noticing. We want to see both Bobby and Billy getting their work done, and we desperately want to understand why this seems to come naturally to one child and is near-impossible for the other. While the goal of the question is to understand, the outcome is often painful for the underperforming child. What Bobby hears is “Why aren’t you as good as your brother is?” — a question to which Bobby most likely does not have an answer. And since he cannot figure out why he’s not as good as his brother, this may cause him to give up on trying to improve, thereby demotivating him. When this happens, Bobby continues to underperform and mom or dad continues to get stressed, leading the family into a vicious cycle (and probably putting strain on Bobby and Billy’s brotherly bond).

In other instances, comparison language isn’t directed at the child, but is overheard. Perhaps while on an evening phone call with her friend Laurel, Bobby’s mom casually mentions how Billy received outstanding feedback on a paper from Mr. Galloway — a notoriously difficult grader. She might then follow up this comment with an observation, “If Bobby spent less time watching football and checking ESPN scores, he might impress his teachers, too.” Bobby -- who is sitting in the next room over checking said ESPN scores, doesn’t magically get up and get to work on his writing when he hears this. Instead, he most likely interprets what he hears as, “Bobby does the wrong things and his teachers are not impressed with him.” As you might imagine, this can leave Bobby feeling down in the dumps, focusing even more intently on his fantasy football stats to drown out the perceived criticism.    

It’s tough not to draw comparisons, but being mindful about how we phrase our observations and frustrations can help our kids feel we are allies with them when they struggle academically.

2) Emphasize Process over Outcome

Many struggling students know what needs to get done but have difficulty at some point along the way: getting started, persisting to the end, inhibiting their impulses, sustaining attention or managing time. If Bobby can’t seem to avoid video games, hearing about Billy’s outstanding diorama doesn’t help Bobby curb his appetite for Overwatch. Instead, discussing Bobby’s process with him can highlight his areas of strength, which will help him to create a positive set of habits. For example, imagine that Bobby brings home a C- on an essay. There are many ways to help Bobby focus on the things he did well that enabled him to earn a passing grade: perhaps he broke up the writing across two days instead of waiting until the 11th hour to start; perhaps he asked his dad for help understanding a passage in the novel; perhaps he even asked his brother, Billy, to check it over for grammar. These would be excellent to point out to Bobby to encourage him to continue working on his papers in those ways. Sure, the C- might not be the grade that mom or dad were looking for, but helping Bobby to see that parts of his process are positive can motivate him to continue to use those good strategies. And in time, those good habits can pave the way for better grades.

3) Emphasize Strengths

If Billy is great at diligently getting down to his homework while Bobby gets swept up in video games, this doesn’t mean that Billy gets the praise and Bobby gets the punishment (even though we might prefer they both get started on homework right away). Bobby needs to know that he, too, is great at something - perhaps even something that Billy isn’t as skilled at. Letting Billy know that you are proud of his after school diligence with homework and letting Bobby know you’re impressed with his problem-solving skills in his game allow them to both see that they have different kinds of strengths, thus working towards closing the gap between their respective successes.

When siblings have different strengths and weaknesses, avoiding comparison language can be a challenge. Learning how to frame that comparison can encourage us to try new ways of celebrating the diverse skill sets that they have. 


About the Author

Brittany Peterson

Brittany Peterson is a college writing instructor, certified writing tutor, and senior executive function coach at Beyond BookSmart. She began her career in education at Quinnipiac University earning a Bachelor of Arts in English and Masters degree in Secondary Education. Feeling motivated to expand her pedagogical skill set, Brittany pursued a second Masters degree in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Boston. After graduating, she became a full-time lecturer at UMass Boston where she currently serves as the Assistant Director of Composition and teaches first-year composition to a diverse classroom culture including English Language Learners and nontraditional students from a variety of academic backgrounds. Brittany's experience with adult learners, diverse cultures, and a range of learning abilities has enabled her to become a flexible educator who is sensitive to individual learning needs and intrinsically invested in their educational success.

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