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Q: “Family Dynamics are Unbalanced Between Our Kids With and Without ADHD”

July 25, 2023

Q: “How can I help my kids get along when one has ADHD and requires more attention than the other?”

Sibling relationships are, for many of us, among the longest and deepest of our lives. Few people share our family story or provoke our anger so effectively and instantaneously as our brothers and sisters. For the neurotypical siblings of individuals with ADHD, this nuanced relationship is particularly complicated.

Birth order and gender affect most sibling relationships. Somehow, despite stark differences, siblings are expected to get along and offer mutual support. Beyond that, neurotypical siblings of kids with ADHD are frequently encouraged to accommodate, tolerate, and overlook issues that infuriate, scare, or embarrass them. I’ve not only seen these patterns in my practice over the years; I have lived them.

[Self-Test: ADHD Symptom Test for Children]

When I was growing up, people didn’t understand ADHD. Nobody knew exactly why my smart brother struggled so much with hyperactivity, impulsivity, and emotional regulation. He confused me, and his issues dominated our family life. My mother told me repeatedly that I needed to understand and support my brother. I grew tired of trying to accommodate a person who was embarrassing, annoying, and mean to me. I just wanted to have a “normal” family.

Sibling Relationship Themes

Kids with ADHD often have a large presence in their families. Many become the focus of parental worry and concern due to health, academic, or social challenges. The child with ADHD may envy or even feel rage toward their neurotypical siblings for the ease with which they navigate schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and friendships. They may compare themselves to their non-ADHD siblings and feel diminished. These emotions, difficult to discuss and manage, can result in epic meltdowns that impact everyone. I hear from many neurotypical siblings about their frustration, fear, and even pity for a brother or sister who struggles with complex ADHD.

Themes of fairness, inclusion/exclusion, competition, and avoidance run through therapy sessions with these families. The non-ADHD sibling may ask why their brother or sister has daily meltdowns and can’t stop being annoying when asked. They may experience guilt for not having those issues and feel pressure to be the “good kid.” The unpredictability of family dynamics and the lack of what they perceive as fairness stresses the non-ADHD kids.

4 Ways to Improve Family Dynamics

Notice what is going well for each child daily and what is a struggle. Let everybody share “a high and a low” of their day at the dinner table. This helps encourage connections because we all have ups and downs. You can’t make your kids like each other, but you can facilitate healthier interactions by using these four strategies:

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  1. Redefine fairness in the family. Whether you are planning a day at the beach or ordering pizza for family movie night, everybody should have a voice and respect others’ needs. Expect negotiations and create a plan that includes something that appeals to everyone. Or take turns and mark things on the calendar to track who gets what and when. Expectations about chores, bedtimes, and other activities may naturally differ among your children according to their ages and capabilities.
  2. Encourage concessions from everyone. When one child feels burdened to repeatedly accommodate the needs of another, resentment builds in the sibling relationship and toward the parent or caregiver. The neurotypical sibling may disconnect from or reject their brother or sister. Instead, encourage everyone to adjust and concede something to find a solution that everyone can endorse.
  3. Set up private time. Each child wants individual time and attention from a parent or caregiver. This can be a major source of tension in the sibling relationship. Plan to spend time alone with each child at least once or twice monthly to deepen connections. If you have a partner, you can each do this simultaneously. If not, ask family or friends to watch one child while you are out with another one.
  4. Notice your reactions to your kids. Most parents believe they must be impartial, but this can be extremely difficult. It’s common for parents to feel differently about their kids without preferring one over another. Your children are watching how you interact with each member of your family. Practice self-control and figure out what helps you manage yourself better when you are triggered. Use humor, keep your perspective, and rely on compassion. Each of your children will follow your lead.

Sibling Relationships with ADHD: Next Steps

Sharon Saline, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of the award-winning book, What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew: Working Together to Empower Kids for Success in School and Life (#CommissionsEarned) and The ADHD Solution Deck (#CommissionsEarned).

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