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By "Today" contributor
updated 5/14/2004 11:34:20 PM ET 2004-05-15T03:34:20

Q:  I have three children.  My elder son always seems to succeed at everything he does.  He’s an excellent athlete, has artistic ability and was a student of the month this year at school.  Everything seems to come easily to him.  However, his sister, who is the middle child, has a difficult time academically and we’re in the process of having her tested for learning disabilities.  My younger son, who is four, is very cute, and I admit that I dote on him.  My daughter is very frustrated about her situation, feeling that her brothers are better or more loved than she is.  What can I do to make her happy?

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A:  First of all, even a parent does not have the ability to make his or her child happy.  Happiness comes from within and is usually based in feelings of self-confidence, security and comfort with one’s living environment, daily activities and friendships.  However, parents can help set the stage by providing opportunities for the child to develop feelings of comfort and pleasure.

Your daughter seems to be displaying some symptoms of the “middle child syndrome” and may feel that she is lost in the cracks.  The older brother is a star, the younger one is too cute for words, and she may feel as if she doesn’t belong in the family, being different from the others.

I suggest a two-pronged approach.

The first is home-based. You should do your utmost to make sure that your daughter receives the same warmth and praise for her accomplishments and efforts as her brothers. While I am sure you do your best to treat them equally, you indicate in your e-mail that you find yourself doting on your younger son (and I imagine it is very difficult not to exhibit pride in the considerable achievements of your oldest child).  Without overemphasizing your daughter — too much praise will be seen as condescending — ensure that she does not feel left out.

The second set of strategies is focused more in the outside world.

  • First, every child needs to feel special in some way.  Many kids find this in academics, sports, social popularity or a special skill area such as computers or art.  Your daughter needs to feel loved, but also would benefit by feeling special or proficient in a skill or activity.  It’s good that you’re looking into the area of learning disabilities so that she will feel more comfortable in the classroom.  If correctly placed, most likely her grades will improve and she will feel smarter and better about herself. 
  • Next, take a look at her friendships.  Kids can usually get through the pre-teen and teenage years if they have at least one buddy or chum they can confide in and do things with.  Try to help her to cement friendships by exposing her to various groups of kids such as found in church youth groups, after-school activities, or even volunteer programs found at the various hospitals or recreation centers. 
  • Third, consider options for developing skills.  Exposing your daughter to different activities may yield at least one that she not only enjoys but at which she also excels.  If the old stand-bys such as dance, music lessons or cheerleading have not proved fun and successful, try other alternatives.  Many girls love softball, swimming, acting, chorus, and sailing.  You may want to consider getting in touch with your local Explorers club (contact the Boy Scouts of America) for the interest groups available to teenagers in your area.  They offer interesting options such as working with the police, water activities, fire rescue, television production and medical areas.

With exposure to more activities, your daughter will most likely feel more involved and perhaps will develop an interest or skill area in which she does not have to compete with her older brother and it can become a specialty of her own. Coupled with the attention she receives at home, you should see a rise in self-esteem and less compulsion to compare herself with her brothers.

Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” Her most recent book is "Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting" (Rodale, 2002).  She is also the consultant psychologist for the Family Program at the Pritikin Longevity Center, a nutrition and exercise facility in Aventura, Florida. For more information you can visit her Web site at www.ruthpeters.com. Copyright ©2004 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.

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