It's not always easy being No. 2
By Lisa M. Schab, L.C.S.W.
Starting high school is a big deal for any teen. But when an older sibling's larger-than-life reputation precedes a younger sib's entry into the same school, it can feel even more daunting.
The reactions to this will vary from teen to teen. Generally, the more mature a child, the less he will be bothered by an older sibling's standing.
But most high school freshman are still far from finished exploring and developing their individuality. Dealing with a sibling's reputation can serve to spur on his desire to define himself and encourage him to find his own successes. Or, it could hinder his ability to try. Whether an older sibling is regarded in a positive or negative light, the answer to confronting feelings of intimidation is in helping the younger teen to make his own mark, in the way that is best for him.
You can help by using the following strategies:
• Talk about it. As in any situation, the fears we hold inside feel more overwhelming than those we let out. If your teen brings up his apprehensions directly, or if you hear statements such as, "Hey, since Jason and I have the same math teacher, I hope she doesn't get us mixed up," take the opportunity to talk about the circumstances.
Ask him what he thinks might happen if he was confused with his sibling, what it feels like to start school when his brother is the president of Student Council or has a reputation for skipping classes.
Let him express his concerns and try to listen objectively without dismissing his feelings. Comments such as "Well, I can see how you might feel that way-what do you think you can do about it?" will help him problem-solve better than, "Oh that's silly. You worry too much."
If your teen doesn't broach the subject, don't be afraid to bring it up yourself. Saying, "So what do you think it will be like going to school with a sister who's known as ‘The Brain?'" will give him a chance to comment and give you the chance to scan his reactions for any signs of anxiety.
• Help him be his own person. Remind your younger child that no matter how strong the older sibling's personality, he has his own identity.
Each child is a unique make-up of abilities, thoughts and feelings, and each has his own contribution to make to the world. But each can only succeed by remaining true to himself.
Encourage your younger child to explore the paths that interest him because they interest him, not only because they are the same or different from his sibling.
If he views himself as an individual, he won't be as affected by the actions of his older sib. Help him to keep his focus on himself, rather than what his sibling is doing. If he expends his energy on his own journey, he will get a lot further than if he keeps taking side trips to worry about what his sib is up to.
• Set the example-don't compare. If you find yourself verbally comparing your two children, stop. This only encourages them to do the same, and it tells them that you are judging each by the other's performance. Keep an eye on your expectations as well. No sibling should set the standard for any other.
Let your child compare himself only to himself-has he improved in some area? Has he expanded himself in some way? Is he becoming the kind of person he wants to be?
Stick to this policy when other people start comparing, too. If an aunt or neighbor comments that "Jane sure is more of a social butterfly than Sally, isn't she?" try to answer without feeding into the comparison. Replies such as, "Did you know Jane is painting her room green?" or "Sally has really developed a love for skating," can continue the conversation without focusing on the contrast.
• Work with teachers, if necessary. It's not fair, but it's normal, to stereotype. When a teacher knows that "the second Smith boy" is coming up in her class, she may think of him that way until she learns differently.
To combat this, suggest that your younger teen introduce himself to his teachers personally some time during the first week of school. This will give them a new reference point when they think about their student, instead of just a name on a roll sheet and the memory of his sibling. Speaking up in class or talking with the instructor afterwards will help the teacher to think of her student as "Christopher," instead of "the second Smith."
Rarely does the sibling comparison syndrome get out of hand, or affect a younger child enough to cause a severe problem. If it does, however, try asking for teachers who did not know the older sibling, or in very extreme cases-when teachers or administrators don't respond to time and effort-consider switching schools.
Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 20 and 23. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722.