Less fights, more empathy: How to nurture the sibling relationship with ADHD

As parents we have the responsibility, while our children are living under our roofs, to nurture the relationship between our children – one of the longest relationships they will ever have. With the noise and chaos that often ensues in the ADHD household, nurturing that relationship might be lower down on the relationship priority list, behind breaking up fights, refereeing verbal squabbles, and never-ending conflict resolution. 

Your ADHD-diagnosed child is your more-child, usually requiring more of your time, more of your energy and more family resources. And you give them ‘more’. Your neurotypical children need you too, though their bids for attention may be less noticeable. 

A small, qualitative study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2016, confirmed that neurotypical siblings perceived differential parental treatment, compared to their ADHD sibling. The research (which came out of the University of the Witwatersrand) also showed that siblings experience rejection, discrepancy with discipline, and often had to become a parentified child, tending to their sibling in the absence of their parents. 

 

Conceivably then, your neurotypical child could be feeling:

• Jealous and resentful, of the extra time, attention, and family resources needed by their ADHD-diagnosed sibling

• Anger, when they perceive unfair or and inequitable treatment, including the discrepancy in discipline as the ADHD-diagnosed sibling faces fewer consequences and punishment

• Embarrassment, when their brother or sister acts up in public, has school struggles or behavioural issues

• Guilt, that their sibling has certain challenges, and they don’t

• Frustration, often with their sibling’s annoying behaviors, which they won’t stop even though they have repeatedly asked

• Pressure to be the ‘good’ kid, and follow the rules so as not to add to the family stress

Furthermore, they could be:

• Overly accepting of their sibling’s behaviour, even in instances of blatant rule-breaking

• Repressing their feelings - the neurotypical sibling sometimes becomes passive at home and keeps their feelings hidden

 

If this is not addressed, these emotions, and the stifling of these emotions, erode both the sibling relationship and the relationship between you and your child. Here are a few practical strategies to build family bonds and nurture the sibling relationship for love, fewer fights and more laughter: 

1. You set the foundation of grace and compassion

Experts say that the strongest factor influencing your child’s interpretation of their sibling’s ADHD is how you react to it. If you see it as a ‘tragedy’, if you’re easily angered or irritated, you are modeling behaviour. If you deal with your child’s ADHD with grace and humour, your children will most likely see it that way too. 

Likewise, if you diffuse tension between your kids with empathy and take time to understand each child’s point of view, you are setting an example and your children will follow your lead. 

2. Provide structure and stability at home

Parents need to provide their kids with emotional stability, and it starts with making your children feel safe: 

• Have clear house rules and consequences for everyone to be followed 

• Provide your children with frequent feedback and give lots of praise 

• You can even hold regular family meetings to share what they need and their feelings 

3. Family rules apply to everyone, equally

Your ADHD-child’s impulsivity and distraction are not excuses for forgetting chores, behaving badly or disrespecting. This will require follow-through from you, the parent, or it will breed resentment from your neurotypical children. 

4. Keep things fair and inclusive

Fair doesn’t necessarily mean equal, but rather feeling listened to and included in the plans you create for the family – and this needs to be explained to your children. Depending on your child’s age, maturity level and needs, there are times when different rules and privileges apply, e.g. your ADHD diagnosed child needs help with homework, or an older child can have a later bedtime. 

5. Spend time with each child individually

Whether you’re doing a special activity together or shopping alone with one child, the aim is to hang out together. This will allow you to connect with each child privately and keep the lines of communication open. If your neurotypical child is silent, take your special time together to investigate their silence and encourage them to share their feelings. If you do see troubling signs – if they seem depressed or act out, for instance, speak to your children’s pediatrician. 

6. Establish the rules of engagement

Your kids will fight, but you can set a few basic rules of what is acceptable and what is not, e.g. tell your children, “In our family, we don’t hit, we don’t swear, we don’t insult each other, we don’t damage each other’s things”. 

Parents should always be clear that they are on the side of what’s right. 

Explain to your kids when you will intervene, when you will instruct them to take space and teach them how to make amends and move forward. 

7. If fights turn physical:

Keep your cool 

• Intervene quickly and assertively 

• Focus on problem solving 

• Don’t get caught up in their blame game 

• Discipline both children equally every time a fight breaks out 

8. In the end, parents make the final decisions

Ultimately, you are responsible for your children, and you are in charge! 

9. Get support

If you, your partner or other children, are struggling with overwhelm in the family dynamic, seek support from ADHD support groups or a therapist. 

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