Dear Carolyn,

What a stressor the holiday was! I have two sons, who are ages 4 and 7. While this should be a blessed time for all the holiday fanfare, it isn’t, and why? The 7-year-old believes that I favor the 4-year-old. And, admittedly, I may favor him. The 4-year-old has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and he takes so very much of my time. However, the 7-year-old is mean to him, hides his toys and makes fun of him in a cruel way; he cries and yells at me that I am favoring the youngest. Where is the manual for parenting in this situation? To top it off, my husband left me just after Christmas. He made a point of leaving on Jan. 8, National Divorce Day. I fear my estranged is going to want custody of the oldest and ignore the youngest. How do I handle the oldest?


Carolyn Answers:

You certainly have your hands full, as does any family with a disabled child. You can do it; have that confidence. Favoritism, or perceived favoritism, of one child over has been recorded since the biblical report of Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, who was given a long coat of many colors. Jacob’s favoritism caused his half brothers to hate him, strip him of the beloved coat and throw Joseph in a pit. While Joseph certainly wasn’t disabled, the principles of favoritism are the same.

There are long term effects for both children, but the unfavored child may suffer lifelong depression or a chronic need to feel special. Also, forget sibling relationships; those relationships are “toast.”

You have the job of both stopping bad behavior that has started and creating a feeling of equality in your own home between the children. This is tricky because you don’t want to reward the bad behavior of the oldest.

Criticism of your youngest is not likely to work in this instance, according to psychologist Leon F. Seltzer. According to Seltzer, as your son: “Look, we think what’s going on is that your brother gets much more attention than you do, and that’s really upsetting and feels unfair to you, no?” The child will likely agree. Then ask, “is this why you are picking on him?” This starts the communication from an empathic place for the 7-year-old. Use this compassionate approach when the bad behavior happens.

On the positive side, set aside a few special minutes a day for the 7-year-old and you. “Your time.” Then, once a week, do something really special like a movie – just you and the 7-year-old.

Divorces igniting after the holidays is a tsunami. Divorces surge in January. Let’s just call it “post-holiday divorce syndrome.” I also will add that the divorce rate is much higher between parents with a disabled child. The added stressors and distraction from the marriage with a special needs child create an 80 percent divorce rate as contrasted with the 40 to 50 percent divorce rate in the general population.



Send your questions on family law and divorce matters to Ask Carolyn at Please do not put identifying information in your questions. Note that the answers in Ask Carolyn are intended to provide general legal information, and the answers are not specific legal advice for your situation. The column also uses hypothetical questions. A subtle fact in your unique case may determine the legal advice you need in your individual case. Also, please note that you are not creating an attorney-client relationship with Carolyn J. Woodruff by writing or having your question answered by Ask Carolyn. Ask Carolyn is be a regular column, but not necessarily weekly.