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When Sibling Fighting Knows No End: 4 ADHD Parenting Strategies for Warring Kids in Quarantine

Sibling fights seem to erupt more frequently and virulently when ADHD is in the mix. During quarantine, you can guard your family’s wellbeing — and your kids’ relationship — by squashing squabbles before they start and teaching emotional control, with help from this expert advice.

brother and sister having a pillow fight on a bad

All children need four things: your ear, your empathy, your acknowledgment, and special time alone with you. This is how they feel supported and valued by the family.

This also requires a steady level of parental calm that is elusive amid quarantine-related uncertainty, stress, and financial insecurity. It’s difficult, but important, to shield our kids from those worries right now. Remember, your family’s ship needs a calm captain who is able to anticipate choppy waters, and navigate around them safely and steadily.

The rough seas of ADHD are particularly turbulent for kids right now. Online learning is not as engaging as are classroom instruction and discussion. Kids miss their friends, their teachers, and their extracurricular activities — especially the ones that give them a platform to shine. With so much canceled and little to look forward to, they are feeling significant loss — loss that’s difficult to articulate and may manifest as anger, aggression, and attention-seeking behaviors.

In children with ADHD, hyperactivity, and lack of impulse control can trigger even more annoying and problematic behavior — persistent interrupting, yelling, poking, badgering, and not playing fair, for example. This may be driving everyone in your household nuts at a time when you could really use a break yourself. Siblings often bear the brunt of this behavior.

So, it’s official: you need all hands on deck to keep the peace in your home. Enlist the help of any family member who can help with positive reinforcement, healthy activities, or levity — humor always helps. That includes neurotypical siblings, who are often willing and able to help the most. Here are some ideas for reducing conflict as a team.

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#1. Give voice to your neurotypical child.

For more than four decades, I’ve worked with families impacted by ADHD. I also grew up in a family with an ADHD sibling — my older brother. I’ve seen first hand that addressing the needs of the neurotypical sibling can be an effective way to ease tensions between siblings.

Neurotypical children endure a lot of disruption and are often sad and frustrated by family conflict. In response, they may minimize their own needs and feelings. Like good soldiers, they go out of their way to avoid adding more stress to the family. For these kids, helping makes them feel important and competent.

There’s a story I like to share about a 4-year-old child who, after witnessing a school bus-related morning struggle between his mom and an older sibling with ADHD, said “Don’t worry, Mommy. You’ll never have trouble like that with me.” This scene demonstrates how, after witnessing challenging behavior, the neurotypical sibling might work to make things calmer at home.

The truth is most siblings of children with ADHD feel ambivalent about taking care of and protecting their brother or sister. They hate that their sibling’s behavior requires so much of their parents’ time and attention, but they also feel sad that their sibling struggles so much. They may feel they are expected to play with or help their sibling with ADHD, and understandably angry when the parent doesn’t acknowledge or address their complaints about aggression and other problematic behavior.

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It’s important to hear and address their concerns. If you don’t, the neurotypical child may become resentful and believe they are unworthy of love, attention, and care.

Ambivalence is part of the ADHD experience. Acknowledge it and explain that mixed feelings are understandable — it’s possible to feel both love and anger toward the same person. It’s also possible to make room for both feelings. Tell them you know they love their sibling with ADHD, but that doesn’t make it any easier to understand or tolerate behavior that makes them angry or hurts them.

Giving them a voice and validating their experience can minimize bad feelings. Every day or two, check in with your neurotypical child. Ask them how they’re feeling or what’s bothering them. Attending to their discomfort and allowing them to acknowledge unpleasant feelings helps diminish their stress. It also lets them know they are cared about and noticed, even in their role as the cooperative sibling.

It also gives you the opportunity to learn what’s hard for them and reassure the child that you love and care about them.

Always be ready to acknowledge acts of kindness. Saying “thanks for being patient with your brother today” fuels their desire to be helpful and lets them know you are on the same team.

#2. Avoid activities that usually lead to conflict.

Conflict between siblings is a normal part of life — and necessary training for learning to negotiate needs — but it is hardly a foregone conclusion. This may seem obvious, but some parents overlook the opportunity to direct children toward activities where they’re more likely to work together — and less likely to provoke each other.

Suggest some collaborative, rather than competitive, activities they can participate in together such as baking or working on a LEGO project. Ask for their ideas about what would be fun to do together. (Couch pillow fort anyone?)

If they do decide to engage in play that may be challenging, anticipate sticky moments in advance and troubleshoot resolutions with each child. You can say for example, “If you play basketball with your brother, what will lead to an argument?”

Give them tools to deal with difficult behavior by role-playing a few scenarios. Pretend to be the annoying sibling and show them how to shut down unacceptable behavior. For example, they can practice saying, “If you are going to cheat and always have to win, I’m going inside because it’s not fun for me.”

#3. Teach kids how to express their feelings rather than become their feelings.

Explain to your kids that the brain comprises two parts — the “feeling” part and the “thinking” part. Help them visualize this concept by putting your thumb in your palm and closing your fingers over it to make your “brain.” Explain that the middle part of the brain is where emotions and strong feelings live. When a child becomes really angry and loses it, that’s a sign that the feeling brain is taking over. Demonstrate the brain “flipping its lid” by explosively opening your hand.

Help your child put the thinking part of the brain in charge so that big emotions (“I hate you”!) don’t take over. Kids can understand that yelling angrily can make the other person feel assaulted. Anger is hard to hear because it’s too aggressive and makes the recipient of the anger want to run away and protect themselves from the verbal aggression.

The thinking brain thinks before it responds. Instead of being impulsive and hitting to show your anger, the thinking brain says, “I’m really angry that you came into my room/took the remote without asking/always have to win…” Anger that’s handled in that way will be heard. The goal, your child should know, is to manage the conflict before it becomes a fight. They can do this by expressing feelings without becoming those feelings.

You can use the “brain” imagery whenever you hear problems escalate. You can say “It sounds like the feeling brain is taking over. Let’s take a second and think about how to put the thinking brain back in charge.”

Emotional regulation can be a struggle for kids with ADHD, so language is important. Ask them to assign a number to their anger (from 1 to 10, 10 being the highest). If they say it’s a 6, ask them what they can do to get their anger to a 4. You can provide solutions like time apart to cool off, a snack break, or a round or two of jumping jacks. Let them know they’ll have to go to their rooms unless they can get their anger under control.

Create a reward system around this to incentivize the kids and encourage them to continue practicing self-control. I work with a family that puts a marble into a jar every time the child uses the thinking part of the brain to get back in charge. Once the jar is filled up, the child is rewarded with a special toy or activity.

#4. If your child with ADHD is medicated, consider a temporary adjustment during lock down.

Everyone’s schedules are different now and a lot of medicines — especially stimulants — are designed to last through the school day. After about 3 p.m., and without after-school activities or sports to take the edge off, sibling battles tend to escalate as the day wears on.

Use a telehealth visit to check in with your psychiatrist or pediatrician regarding the timing of medicine, the type of medication, and the duration of it. It might make sense to make some timing and/or dosage adjustments so that you can have a more peaceful household. Properly dosed and timed medication can help your child with ADHD handle the provocations they encounter and the boredom that may be leading them to irritate the dog or provoke their sister.

We’re all starting to suffer from quarantine fatigue, but it won’t last forever. Navigating your family through rough waters requires parental leadership. Strive to anticipate the conflict and avoid it before it erupts into fighting. Also strive to hear and acknowledge difficult emotions, while teaching your child how to practice using their thinking brain to wrest control away from the anger. This is their chance to learn emotional control in a safe and rewarding environment.

If there’s a silver lining in this pandemic, it’s that spending more time together is an opportunity to practice self-control and experience new ways to play more contentedly together.

[Read: Is My Child’s Distress Normal?]


Barton Herskovitz, MD, is the author of The ADHD Sibling Challenge: How to Thrive When Your Brother or Sister Has ADHD.

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Updated on May 13, 2020

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