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Parenting the Child Whose Sibling Has ADHD

Your child with ADHD may naturally demand more of your time and attention. But that doesn’t mean his or her siblings might aren’t dealing with their own unique, important issues, too.

parenting sibling without adhd

Any parent of more than one child understands the inevitability of sibling rivalry, from fighting over toys to competing for Mom and Dad’s attention. But when one of your kids has ADHD, sibling dynamics and challenges tend to extend beyond arguments over the iPad or scoops of ice cream.

“Siblings of children with ADHD experience a litany of unique issues as they grow up, ranging from embarrassment when their brother or sister acts up in the middle of the supermarket to guilt as to why their sibling has certain challenges and they don’t,” explains Don Meyer, director of the Seattle-based Sibling Support Project, a national program dedicated to the brothers and sisters of people with special health, developmental, and mental health concerns, and founder of Sibshops, national peer support groups for school-age brothers and sisters of kids with special needs.

In most families, kids butt heads — sometimes daily, sometimes hourly. But in a home where one child has ADHD, parents may notice lower-than-average rates of sibling bickering and arguing. Sounds like a dream come true, right? Wrong. Silence may mean your typically-developing child is dealing with some heavy emotions of his or her own. “A lot of siblings feel guilty about the fact that they can do things easily that their brother or sister struggles with, so when they do inevitably lash out against each other, there’s an immense guilt that comes along with that,” Meyer explains.

[Focusing On Siblings Who Don’t Have ADHD]

In fact, studies have shown that siblings of children with ADHD tend to be overly accepting of their brother or sister, and sometimes passive at home because they understand how much extra time and attention their sibling requires. They don’t want to bother or over-stress their parents. They also may be more likely to simply accept their sibling’s behavior — even instances of bullying or blatant rule breaking — as a natural part of life.

“If possessions get stolen or taken, or there’s any hitting going on, parents need to be clear that they are always on the side of what’s right,” asserts Elizabeth A. Batson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California and author of I Have Needs Too!: Supporting the Child Whose Sibling Has Special Needs. “The rules need to be followed by everyone, and there are behaviors that are simply not acceptable — and all of your children need to see that so the siblings know that how they feel matters, too.”

Pressure to be the “Good Kid”

Because your daughter regularly witnesses her brother’s meltdowns or his nightly homework struggles, she might put pressure on herself to bring home straight As or become the star player on the soccer field. “These are children who put a ton of pressure on themselves to balance the scale at home,” Meyer says, noting that siblings of children with special needs tend to be overachievers because they feel pressure to be the “good kid” and not cause any additional familial stress.

“In my experience, the kid with ADHD often has the bigger presence… he or she is strong-willed, verbal, volatile, and demanding of more attention,” agrees Cindy Goldrich, New York-based ADHD parent coach and owner of PTS Coaching. “So their siblings might see that and get the message that in order to get their parents’ attention, they have to go big… they have to do more and achieve more.”

[Free Download: 13 Parenting Strategies for Kids with ADHD]

Katie Arnold, executive director of the Sibling Leadership Network in Chicago, grew up with a brother with ADHD, and today her organization provides siblings of individuals with disabilities the information, support, and tools they need to promote the issues important to their families. “My experience was that, when my brother and I had a disagreement, my parents wanted to intervene… and, of course, parents are usually going to side with the child who has disability. And that was always really frustrating to me,” she recalls. “It’s important for kids to learn how to work things out on their own; after all, the sibling relationship is the longest relationship you’re likely to have in your lifetime.”

Keep Things Fair

According to Batson, most children want to feel as though everything in their world is “fair,” and that’s especially true when it comes to sharing the love and attention of Mom and/or Dad. Of course, it’s all too easy for parents to unintentionally spend more time with a child with ADHD simply because he or she needs it.

“Children want things to be fair, but they may not understand that fair can’t possibly mean equal when you have kids with very different needs,” she explains.  Instead, she advises parents to make sure that all of their children are heard, and feel as though their needs are equally important. “If your child feels as though they’re getting everything they need, they’ll be a lot more understanding of the fact that their brother or sister with ADHD is getting a little bit more time and attention,” she adds.

The same rule applies for setting household rules and offering rewards for positive behaviors. “Many parents of children with ADHD use charts and reward systems to help their child focus on the tasks they need to accomplish every day, which is great…but what your typically-developing child sees is her brother or sister being rewarded for brushing their teeth every morning while they do the same and get nothing,” Batson adds. Depending on their ages, she recommends offering opportunities for all children to earn rewards for tasks appropriate to their abilities.

[“Growing Up, I Never Knew My Sister Had ADHD”]

Emphasize Quality of Quantity

Experts advise parents to carve out special time with each child individually. This means setting aside some non-negotiable time to spend with each child on a regular basis, whether it’s a visit to the zoo or a walk around the block after dinner to talk privately about feelings and frustrations at school and at home.

“Parents need to spend one-on-one time with their children. It doesn’t mean you have to take them to Disneyland…it could be a trip to Burger King,” Meyer says. “But that time will show them that you care about what they’re going through, and that they have your undivided attention.”

The good news is that, while siblings of children with ADHD face unique family challenges, they also tend to grow up to be mature, patient, responsible, tolerant, and accepting of others. As a result, Goldrich notes that a higher-than-average percentage of siblings of children with ADHD and other special needs end up going into helping professions as adults. “While your other children may be dealing with frustrations, they’re also developing genuine empathy and compassion and patience and a deep understanding that everyone is different,” she says.

Open the Lines of Communication

Remain open and willing to communicate with all of your children about the family’s unique challenges. Learn to explain ADHD in age-appropriate ways, be available to answer questions, and proactively provide information and support. “As a kid, my brother with ADHD was always bouncing off the walls and had all of this energy, and I couldn’t understand why. I wanted to know why he was taking medication and I wanted to be able to answer the questions that my friends at school were asking about him,” Arnold recalls.

And, ultimately, experts say that parents should always be mindful of how they’re dealing with the day-to-day challenges of raising a child with ADHD — because your other children are always watching.

“The single strongest factor influencing a child’s interpretation of their sibling’s ADHD is how their parents react to it. If parents treat it like a life-altering tragedy, then they shouldn’t be surprised if their other children also see it that way,” Meyer concludes. “Instead, if parents see it as series of challenges that they meet with as much grace and humor they can muster, they have every reason to believe that their child’s siblings will see it that way, too.”

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  1. One very important thing to keep in mind, especially if the “non” addhd child is female, is that addhd presents in many different forms. The child that has not been diagnosed with addhd may still have it but with a different set of symptoms. Little girls are hard wired to find a way to work around the symptoms that for them are normal. Its later in life that the work around does not work and they don’t know why or how to fix it.
    When I was young i was never diagnosed with it because my brother was off the charts energy and showed all the classic signs.
    It was not until my 40’s that with my world falling apart for many years that I asked to be screened. My youngest was diagnosed and I started to do research in earnest. Looking back all four were showing the signs, but no two were the same.
    Boys have a harder issue because it hits them right from the start. School and grades never take hold, then esteem becomes a life long problem.
    Looking back the signs were there for all of them, but as a parent it was not until the youngest was suspected by informed teachers and a district that was supportive.He was caught early enough to get around the first jump. With a good IEP, medication, proactive learning assistance he went from D and F to B and A in one year. The School system as a whole makes all the difference.
    He knows he may always have issues, but he also knows he can work through them.

  2. I never understood when my adult sibling wouldn’t admit her struggles so we could have been more positively productive in our love and understanding of our differences rather than all the time we played so many negative games. I am classically described in this article but never got the chance to feel we finally came to peace before 2 episodes with breast cancer sent her untreated disability into high panic and anxiety for the remainder of her life. My sister was so smart and I’m the sibling with all the degrees. I really miss her.

    1. Your storie really touched me .. I just wanna say I realy feel you .. I think many ppl. Can relate ,in some way , having undiagnosed add/adhd in family, ther are ( can be ) lots of ” if only ” seen in retrospective . I have a sister who won’t admit to having ANY problems cousin a break between her and our mom ,going on for more than two years now ..realy sad . Two of my three son are diagnosed with adhd .and I expect I have too . I have a fairly good understanding of add / adhd by now , having read all I could about it for the last five years . and I suspect my mom has it too , but nighter my sis , or my mom will hear any of it …they surely AINT sick .. Our family to be fragmented cos of pride , hurt , n a lack of will to work throug it .
      Add/ adhd can be a real ( searching for the right word here ..) ” pain ” in families..if it goes untreated.
      Excouse my spelling . I’m from Denmark : )

      Much Love Lars

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