Positive Parenting

Caught in the Middle

Expert advice for making sure that your children without ADHD also get the time and consideration they deserve.

ADHD siblings growing up
ADHD siblings growing up

If you’re the parent of a child who has attention deficit disorder (ADHD), you probably spend a big chunk of each day trying to see the world through that child’s eyes. But what about the neurotypical siblings of children with ADHD? How much time do you devote to meeting their needs? Perhaps not as much as you should, experts say.

As a parent, you want all your children to grow up healthy and happy and to reach their full potential. You want to give them equal attention and afford them the same advantages. But it’s an inescapable truth that a child who is impulsive, distractible, or hyperactive demands a lot of your time and energy. It’s easy to become so focused on that child that you shortchange the rest of your brood — even though they need you just as much. In fact, there are times when a child without needs you even more. After all, having a “spirited” sibling can cause a range of painful emotions: embarrassment, exasperation, guilt, and even fear.

How can you give each of your children the attention he or she needs without causing the others to feel neglected? Listen to what your kids without ADHD say to you. Here are some common complaints of children who have brothers or sisters with ADHD — and the smart way for parents to respond.

“She gets all the attention…”

The number-one complaint of neurotypical siblings is that a brother or sister demands so much attention from their parents that there’s little left over for them. As a parent, you may think that your child without ADHD is doing just fine with the status quo. Don’t be so sure. Signs that a child feels neglected can be subtle, although there’s usually something you can pick up on.

“Some kids will complain directly to their parents, saying, ‘You only pay attention to him,'” says Fred Grossman, Ph.D., a psychologist with the public-school system in Portland, Oregon. “Others may withdraw and feel jealous or resentful. Other children will act out themselves as a way to get more attention.”

That’s what happened in the Plainview family of Connecticut. Soon after her eight-year-old sister, Sarah, began seeing a therapist for her ADHD, seven-year-old Addie, who does not have ADHD, started throwing tantrums and exhibiting the same behaviors that Sarah had shown.”She cried and said how hard it was to have a sister with ADHD, because she got all the attention,” says the girls’ mother, Lisa Plainview. “We made an appointment for Addie to see Sarah’s counselor, too, and after a couple of sessions, things calmed down considerably. By seeing Sarah’s ‘special doctor,’ Addie felt special, too.”

The first step in closing the attention gap, experts say, is to acknowledge your other child’s feelings. “Just knowing that you’re aware of the situation and want to improve it can help your child,” says Dr. Grossman, who runs sibling workshops for kids with ADHD. “Spending time alone with each of your children every day is also important.”

Extra attention for Nicole has certainly helped things in the Kerimian family. “I grocery-shop every Sunday morning, and I alternate which of my girls I take with me,” says Debby Kerimian. “We go out to breakfast first and talk. It’s a special time. Nicole is always well-behaved when it’s just the two of us.”

“I feel sorry for him…”

Seeing a brother or sister get more attention doesn’t always trigger jealousy in siblings who don’t have ADHD. Sometimes it triggers guilt or pity. Though she may never admit it, she does love her sibling. Hearing him criticized can make her feel guilty — especially if she sees herself as her parents’ “favorite.”

“Avoid falling into a cycle in which you constantly criticize everything one child does and always praise the other child,” says Linda Sonna, Ph.D., a child psychologist in private practice in Taos, New Mexico, and author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with ADD/ADHD and The Everything Parent’s Guide to Raising Siblings. “The one thing parents should never say is, ‘Why can’t you be more like your brother or sister?’ Comments like that can alienate children.”

So what’s the better approach? Sonna recommends taking the focus off the don’ts and focusing on the dos. “If you’re constantly telling your child what not to do, you’re not telling him what he should be doing,” she says. “Instead of saying, ‘Don’t yell like that — it’s embarrassing me,’ say, ‘Please lower your voice — we’re in a library, so we need to be quiet.'”

Try suggesting this approach as something your child without ADHD can use to help smooth her sibling’s social interactions. For example, if your neurotypical daughter notices that her brother with ADHD is getting worked up because no one is asking him to play ball at recess — and she’s afraid he might cause a scene — maybe she can suggest that he calmly go over and ask if he can join the game, or get his own ball and offer to share it with the others.

“She always embarrasses me…”

It always seems to happen in a store, at a family friend’s house, or when you’re splurging on a family dinner in a nice restaurant: Just when your child with ADHD needs to be on her best behavior, she throws a fit. Public meltdowns are embarrassing enough for parents, and they can be absolutely humiliating to your children who don’t have ADHD, who lack the emotional maturity to make sense of their sibling’s outburst.

“If your child with ADHD is older, the younger sibling might have an emotional response and act out, as well,” says William Lord Coleman, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the Center for Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill. “If the ADHD child is younger, on the other hand, his older sibling may scold him and become a little parent.”

To avoid embarrassing episodes, steer clear of places and situations where you know problems are likely to arise. If your kid with ADHD often acts out in restaurants, for example, pick someplace that has fast service. “Practicing the correct way to behave in a restaurant before you go helps, too,” says Coleman. “It lets your kids rehearse good behavior at a time when there is no pressure to be well-behaved.”

If your neurotypical child seems embarrassed by her sibling’s behavior, encourage her to express her feelings to you privately. Do not blame her for feeling embarrassed. Say something like, “Sometimes he embarrasses me, too. But when that happens, I think of how funny he can be, and that makes me feel better.”

It’s also important to encourage your child without ADHD to stick up for her brother or sister around friends — for example, by focusing on the sibling’s strengths rather than his weaknesses. She can tell peers, “Sure, Johnny acts silly sometimes, but did you know he’s the fastest runner in his class?”

Another option, says Dr. Sonna, is to ask your kid without ADHD what he thinks you should do to help his sibling behave better. “This makes your child feel important, and kids can come up with some surprisingly good ideas,” says Sonna.

“He’s always picking on me…”

All kids find their siblings irritating sometimes. But children with ADHD are more likely to get irritated than other kids — and more likely to lash out verbally or physically when they are.

“Our 10-year-old, Matt, who has ADHD and impulsivity issues, is always attacking his six-year-old brother, Brandon,” says Lisa Ernst, of Limerick, Pennsylvania. “If they’re playing hockey together, and Brandon is doing better, Matt will check him hard and make him fall down. And recently, when Brandon refused to give Matt a chance to play a game on the computer, Matt bent Brandon’s finger back so hard I thought it was broken. I know all kids fight, but Matt has a rapid-fire attack that can get out of hand quickly. I worry that things will worsen as they get older.”

What’s a parent to do? Consistent discipline is crucial; children behave better when mom and dad establish specific rules for behavior and impose consequences for not meeting those rules. “Matt knows that if he hits his brother, he’s going to his room for an hour,” says Ernst. “If we enforce that rule, we know there will be no more trouble that evening. He’s always more respectful when he emerges from his room.”

If your children seem to get into fights at certain times of day — just before dinner or while doing homework — consider separating them at those times. Of course, medication and/or counseling may also help your child with ADHD rein in the impulsivity that fuels his combative behavior.

“I have to do all the work…”

When household chores need doing, you may reflexively turn first to your neurotypical child — and no wonder. You know she’ll be quick to pitch in, whereas you might have to remind your child with ADHD repeatedly before he helps out. As Dr. Grossman puts it, “One child has to pick up the slack for the sibling who has ADHD because the parents don’t have the time or energy to deal with the other child’s behavior.”

Over time, your child without ADHD could begin to resent the fact that she is being asked to do more than her fair share of the work. This complicates relationships within the family.

For a family to run smoothly, everyone must do his share. One good strategy is to post on your refrigerator a list of chores that need to be done, who is responsible for each, and when each must be done. Keep any necessary supplies on hand at all times.

“My younger child, Nathan, has ADHD. When he and his sister were growing up, she did more chores than he did,” says Luann Fitzpatrick of Batavia, Illinois. “One thing that helped was writing down all the steps of the chores we expected Nathan to do. For example, I expected each of my kids to do their own laundry once they became teens. For Nathan, I wrote down instructions for separating colors from whites, for measuring the detergent, and for properly setting the machine. Having the information right in front of him made it easier for him.”

In some cases, siblings of kids with ADHD become perfectionists. “Kids with siblings who demand a lot of attention often fall into a pattern of feeling that, because their sibling creates so much turmoil, they have to suppress their own needs to avoid adding to their parents’ stress,” says Dr. Sonna. “They want to take pressure off their parents by being perfect children. Of course, they’re simply turning the stress on themselves instead. Parents may inadvertently add to these feelings when they overreact if their neurotypical child misbehaves by saying things like, ‘I put up with your brother all day long. I can’t take it from you, too.'”

To curb such attempts at perfectionism, think twice before criticizing any of your children. “Make sure each child has her own space to chill out, as well as plenty of opportunities to be with friends, who can be a great outlet,” says Dr. Grossman. Don’t expect too much from your child without ADHD — or too little from the one with ADHD.