The Second Child

What happens to the empty space a sibling leaves behind when they move out of the family? This summer, our oldest teen had suddenly become too old to bother with family holidays — they would rather hang with friends. At first it felt like a loss, but then something happened: it cleared the way for the younger teen to step up, take her space and fill it.

Siblings each take up their role in a flock. My kids are no different. My oldest is on the autism spectrum, and thus there’s always been an unequal division of the space — and the parents’ attention — between my kids. Growing up with an older sibling that always fills the stage can lead a person to take their place in the wings. My youngest has become that child. The quiet child. The child who doesn’t draw attention to herself.

My partner and I have always been acutely aware of this inequality and tried to address it whenever we could. But in a frantic everyday there wasn’t always time to sit with her, be silent with her and let her fill the silence with her presence. She expresses herself in a much more quiet way than her raucous sibling, and you have to really listen, give her space and not try to coerce her to share.

Truth is, she wasn’t often given that space.

Whether by character or conditioning, she has always played a background role in her relationships: a goalkeeper on her soccer team, a bass player in the band, the quiet-ish but trusted friend. She isn’t timid or self-effacing, it’s just that she simply doesn’t like to be the center of attention. She’s a part of the foundation, not a centerpiece.

Having a Plan or Winging it

On the first day of our holiday we felt amputated. Something important wasn’t there, and we all felt the loss. But slowly we melted into our new roles. We (re)discovered the joy of being spontaneous, of not having a plan. And our youngest kid gradually stepped out of the background. She was no longer just the little sis who tagged along.

Stepping out of the background. (Vienna, 2021)

The Double Teen Challenge

A neurotypical teenager is different. The struggle is real, but it’s familiar. It’s easier for us as parents to empathise or offer up a mirror. And in some bizarre way it became a means to identify the ‘classic’ teenage issues with our oldest child.

Taking the Stage

With that, her inner Teenager surfaced. She would moan loudly, cringe or roll her eyes if we stepped out of line, i.e. talked too loud (or laughed too loud, Gods forbid!), or downright refuse to talk to us if we asked ‘dum’ questions or pressed an issue.

But it was sweet music to my ears. Because it was her. Unfiltered by her sibling’s presence. Her acute, finely tuned sense for when to withdraw to the wings was shut off. She filled the stage in a subtle, understated, but powerful way that was uniquely her own. It felt like getting to know her all over again.

When we returned home both siblings seamlessly slipped back into their well-defined roles. But my youngest has had a taste of what it means to take her space, and in the time to come she’ll challenge her sibling on it. Maybe then the music won’t be as sweet to my ears, but at least I’ll know my role: Step back. Let them find the space that’s theirs.

Taking their space in the world. Together. (Vienna, 2021)

Issues in the life of a neurotypical teen

I have nothing to wear.

Why can’t I play my bass after 9 pm?

The Yungblud concert is cancelled. My life is over.

What do you mean I can’t watch Stranger Things without parental supervision?!

My white tee is in the laundry. My life is over.

Issues in the life of a neurodiverse teen

How do I make my classmates understand that I can’t decode irony?

I can’t go to the store when it’s raining because my noise cancelling headphones (that I need for every interaction with the outside world) will be ruined.

I don’t go to concerts or large parties with my friends because the sheer mass of people is unbearable.

How do I know when someone’s flirting with me?

I have nothing to wear.

Oh well. At least some things are universal.



UX writer, content designer, parent of teens, earthling, human language evangelist. I occasionally write about these subjects.

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Signe S.

UX writer, content designer, parent of teens, earthling, human language evangelist. I occasionally write about these subjects.