7 Ways to Support Siblings in an ADHD Home

by Anna LoPinto

Parenting children living with learning and attention issues requires patience, understanding, and creative management. Often, siblings can get lost in the noise of disruption and crisis. As parents and caregivers we strive to find ways to meet the individual needs of each member of the family, but when the bright pink elephant comes spinning into the room like a Tasmanian devil, it tends to grab our attention. How many opportunities have been dramatically changed or lost due to the irascible temperament of one of your children? What was the resulting fallout for their siblings? How did you strive to compensate for the loss?

Judy Kendall researched this topic (Kendall, J., Sibling accounts of ADHD. Family Process, 38, Spring, 1999, 117-136) and found disruption associated with ADHD had the most impact on siblings. This included: physical and verbal aggression, out-of-control hyperactivity, emotional and social immaturity, academic underachievement and learning problems, family conflicts, poor peer relationships, and difficult relationships with extended family. This resulted in the sibling feeling victimized, a responsibility for having to care take of their brother or sister, and feelings of sorrow and loss.

Judy recommended keeping a watchful eye and examine if these trends are in place in your home. Finding opportunities to spend special time alone with the non-affected sibling can be enormously helpful. Often described as the “easy” child, they are often reluctant to make requests or demand additional resources, which is why it is so critical to consider their needs as equal priority. I recognize those words are easy to say but far more difficult to put into practice. It begins by recognizing when disruptions happen and creating a reminder to circle back and provide the necessary support.

The impact on family members of children with ADHD, particularly on siblings, is an important but under-researched area. This qualitative study is an initial step to learn more about this relationship. If the findings from this study are disconcerting to you, I encourage you to consider taking some of these positive steps to address this challenge within your own home.

I recognize that there are varying levels of disruption ranging from being late to school because poor time management to fits of anger resulting in the impulsive destruction of a sibling’s belongings. Given the feedback I have received from so many families and my own experience as a parent, I have a few suggestions:

1. Spend some time looking for common trends and particularly challenging situations and see if a change in the routine or safeguards can be put into place to lessen the disruptive influence. At the Willson home, book bags are prepped the night before and ready to go. If any of the children are creating a delay, I will drop off the child that is ready, and return to take the other child late to school. Should that occur, all electronics are lost until the next day. (Incidentally, I have only had to do that twice.) This makes sure that your child who is prepared and ready to go on time is not negatively impacted for their sibling’s behavior.

2. Consider implementing a Family Constitution that governs some of the typical situations you encounter, with pre-established solutions and consequences.

3. Learn how to answer the “That’s not fair” complaint often heard in every household that has multiple children. I simply say to both my children and participants at SOAR the following: “I make decisions based on what I believe is going to be in your best interest. I do not consult your brothers, sisters, peers when doing so. I am confident you don’t want me seeking their opinion when it comes to your consequences. Therefore, I don’t consult you when trying to determine what I believe is in the best interest for them.”

4. My wife and I make a great effort to have individual experiences with each of our children. This creates incredible bonding opportunities and allows each child to have an experience that is not exposed to the potential disruption of their sibling.

5. Avoid falling into the trap of having one child feel responsible for another. We have a mantra “Willson’s stick together” thus we all share some responsibility for each other and it is never one sided or over burdening to one sibling.

6. Recognizing frustration for all your children is a natural part of the growing process. The neurotypical child will feel disrupted and impacted. Your child with a learning and/or attention issue may struggle with how easy everything seems to come to their sibling, thus creating resentment and frustration. Validating the feelings of each of your children is critical. Creating a platform to have an open dialogue about feelings of frustration and loss can be critical. Very often, the children we serve feel genuinely bad when confronted by the result of their actions.

7. Creating opportunities for siblings to learn more about what makes their brother or sister so unique can have an incredible lasting impact. Take them to a CHADD or LDA support group meeting that is hosting an interesting topic. Consider going to a conference or workshop together. Families have been coming to our Family Weekend to help all children learn to better cope with each other, and many have sent both the affected and the neurotypical child to camp for the same reason.

Should you want more information on the subject I found the following links to be particularly helpful.

Helping the Siblings of Children with ADHD: Arthure L. Robin

The Impact of ADHD on Siblings