When ADHD Drains and Strains Sibling Relationships

In families touched by ADHD, sibling conflicts often erupt around fairness, inclusion, competition, and avoidance. Here, find parent strategies for creating healthy outlets for strong emotions, enforcing fair consequences, and resolving clashes between children with and without ADHD.

Children quarreling. Sister teasing brother while doing homework together.
Children quarreling. Sister teasing brother while doing homework together.

The sibling relationship is often the longest — and most nuanced — one of our lives. Conflict between siblings is common and also heart-wrenching — for kids as well as parents.

In families touched by ADHD, conflicts often erupt around fairness, inclusion, competition, and avoidance. Siblings without ADHD sometimes experience embarrassment: “Why does my sibling with ADHD have meltdowns and struggle in school?” They might feel frustrated by their sibling’s impulsive behaviors, or guilty that they don’t have similar behavioral, learning, or social challenges. Siblings without ADHD may feel pressure to be the “good kid” and not inflict any additional stress on the family.

The sibling with ADHD often receives a lopsided amount of parental time, worry, engagement, and concern. The child with ADHD may feel jealous of their neurotypical sibling, and the ease with which they navigate school and social settings. This envy can lead to feelings of inadequacy and deep-seated resentment.

We want our children to resolve conflicts on their own, but sibling conflict resolution is inevitably hands-on in childhood. Use the following strategies to mitigate conflict in your ADHD home and foster strong sibling relationships that last a lifetime.

7 Ways to Fortify Sibling Relationships

1. Orchestrate Fun Family Activities

We can’t force our children to get along, but we can plan family activities that are universally enjoyable. If your family is active, plan a hike or go mini-golfing. Book a movie night, and rotate the film selector each week. A novel environment encourages kids to step outside of their typical functioning and habits of taking out stress and frustration on each other. What environments or activities have inspired the most positive or calm sibling interactions in the past?

[Read This Next: “My Kids Fight Nonstop!” How to Squash ADHD Sibling Rivalry]

2. Codify Family Routines

The maturity level and executive functioning skills of a young sibling without ADHD might actually supersede those of an older sibling with ADHD. The younger child may seem more capable in key areas, which rarely boosts the older child’s self-esteem. To counter this inequity, establish family routines, like making lunch for school and cleaning the dinner dishes, with designated roles for each sibling. This levels the playing field and makes each child feel like they serve a specific purpose.

3. Create Outlets for Frustration

Children with ADHD don’t have the executive functioning skills to manage their lives with the consistency or emotional control they would like, so they might take out negative feelings on a sibling through criticism or physical acts. Parents need to find an alternative outlet for frustration. Easy-to-access physical outlets, like a basketball hoop, indoor bicycle, or trampoline, can help. Proper treatment, through ADHD medication and family therapy, is also very important.

4. Divide Your Time

Try to devote your focus to just one child at least once per day. You could work on a project around the house, cook, or run errands — the important thing is that you do it together with no interference from other family members. This one-on-one time will boost your connection with your child and help build their self-worth, too.

5. Celebrate Strengths

You can’t erase jealousy between your children, but you can point out individual strengths. One child might receive accolades for their skills on the soccer field, while the other has a talent for putting away their clothes neatly. What matters more than the actual skill is making the strengths seem equally important and valuable.

[Free Download: Sample Schedules for Reliable Family Routines]

6. Enforce Consequences

Sit down with your family and establish rules around behaviors that won’t be permitted, like name-calling or physical aggression. Write down agreed-upon consequences, like doing the dishes, taking the dog for an extra walk or not earning screen privileges, on separate slips of paper, fold them up and put them in a jar. When there’s a violation, ask your child to pick a consequence from the jar and set a plan for fulfilling it. I call this “Cup o’ Consequences.”

7. Take a Time-Apart

Emotions snowball so quickly that feelings are hurt sometimes before we’ve realized what’s happening. After a conflict, push pause and separate the children. Research shows that it takes 15 to 20 minutes for the brain to settle down after an amygdala hijack. After a quiet break, come back together and talk about what happened and how to move forward.

Fairness is a big issue in most families. Fairness isn’t about equality, but rather feeling listened to and included in family plans and daily activities. Use incentives and reward charts for everyone, but adjust expectations according to ages and abilities. Explain to your kids how that’s what fairness actually looks like. Equality in families isn’t about who gets more and who gets to do what.

Taking a Time-Apart teaches everybody about emotional regulation. Your children watch how you respond to their siblings, with or without ADHD. It’s crucial for parents to practice emotional control so that our kids see how to do it and then they learn to practice it on their own. Use humor and maintain your perspective. Look at the big picture during trying moments: What’s the big goal here? What’s the most important thing to do right now? Practice compassion. Siblings prefer harmony in the family but just may not know how to get there. Your children will follow your lead.

Sibling Relationships with ADHD: Next Steps

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