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 aren’t dealing with their own unique, important issues, too.
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 attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
Updated on June 23, 2021