Dear Dr. Sylvia

Sibling Rivalry May Initiate Underachievement

January, 2015


Our 14-year-old daughter started a pattern of continual arguing about three years ago. It coincided with the time she didn’t pass the tests for gifted programs in elementary school. She said that she actually didn’t want to pass the tests because she didn’t want to appear “different.”

I’ve always thought she was gifted, but she lacks motivation and avoids challenge. On the other hand, our younger daughter is in the gifted program and is highly motivated; so we need to be careful to not set expectations too high for both girls. What do you think we can do to help our older daughter achieve her full potential?




Research actually shows that parents are very good at estimating their children’s abilities, so I don’t doubt that your older daughter is very capable. My study of middle school students from our book Growing Up Too Fast also revealed that gifted kids, particularly gifted girls, feel considerable peer pressure to underachieve and not be identified with earning grades that are too high. During the study, many of the kids told me about the pressure they felt; but usually those were the students who were determined to stay in the program and keep their grades up. They tended to keep things quiet about their grades around friends out of fear they might be excluded. This doesn’t necessarily happen in all schools, but I can assure you that it could be your daughter’s problem.

Sibling rivalry can also cause a sister to avoid working hard in school. If your younger daughter is extremely capable, your older daughter, who is at a more challenging place in the curriculum, may think that she can’t do as well, even if she works harder. It can make her feel smarter to not do her work and tell you that school is “boring” rather than taking a chance at working hard and not doing as well as her sister. By now, she may have lost skills as well as confidence.

You can help both girls best by not overpraising either one. Moderate praise that emphasizes good thinking and working hard, rather than being smartest or best, helps to cut down on competitiveness. Encourage both girls to become engaged in personal interests. Getting your older daughter into extracurricular activities where she is with peers who share her interests and who are hard workers can help her to get back on track. Drama, band, Girl Scouts, sports, dance, and writing and speaking competitions tend to attract kids who like to learn. Being around these students could help reduce negative peer pressure, teach diligence, and build her confidence.

It’s good to remind your daughters that you have a whole, smart family. It’s really important not to label one daughter “the scholar” and the other daughter “the social one.” 

Dr Sylvia RimmDr. Sylvia Rimm is a child psychologist and clinical professor at Case University School of Medicine, author, newspaper and magazine columnist, and radio/TV personality. For free newsletters entitled So Your Child is Gifted, The Arts Are Important For Your Children, Learning Through Healthy Competition, and/or Sibling Rivalry, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for each newsletter and a note with your topic request to P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI, 53094. Read Dr. Rimm’s Articles for Parents and Teachers and submit family questions online at All questions are answered.

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