Sibling Strife: How to stay sane and manage sibling issues in your family

They’re at it-again. Your kids are fighting once more, accusing each other of doing or saying something unkind. The argument is escalating quickly into tears and accusations and you’re fed up and disheartened. All you want is for your kids to get along and be friends. What can you do differently?

It’s heartbreaking and exhausting when your kids don’t get along. Sibling relationships are the way kids figure out how to relate to a peer, practice social skills, and learn negotiation skills. In families living with ADHD, these relationships can be especially tricky. The child with ADHD may feel jealous, angry or frustrated with their sibling, especially when they’re neurotypical. They may feel judged, misunderstood and rejected by them. They probably compare themselves to this sibling and, sadly, come up short.

Neurotypical siblings often suffer with being ‘the other one’–the child who may receive less attention or is expected to put up with inappropriate words, demanding behaviors or excessive needs as part of understanding their sibling’s challenges. They’re asked to be patient when they really feel angry or ignored.  If you’ve got more than one child with ADHD, LD or ASD, it can be especially challenging for everyone to live with how issues with attention, learning or processing information manifest differently.

You can’t make siblings become great friends but you can create a home environment of civility and tolerance. While things may seem fraught with tension now, you don’t know how their relationship will change over time. Focus on how to teach your kids to deal with their conflict effectively by teaching skills such as sharing, compassion and kindness. When the family lives by a code of civility and acceptance, everybody’s relationships improve. Instead of perceiving unfairness and judgments, your kids can learn to accept each other–and themselves–warts and all.

Try these steps:

  1. Normalize different kinds of brains: We all have brains that are uniquely wired. Rather than expecting and demanding compassion, increase empathy by talking about personal strengths and challenges for everyone. Describe executive functioning skills and identify family members’ strengths and challenges. See who shares what skills and where differences arise. Then, make a plan for each person to address one of their challenges. We all have issues we can work on which levels the playing field between siblings. Make a weekly family meeting to  discuss progress and brainstorm new approaches if necessary.
  2. Create a plan to respond to disagreements: Forget about fairness; it just doesn’t exist. Instead, look at the timing and sequences of sibling arguments for a pattern. Use one of your weekly family meetings to create a plan for what to do when arguments arise. What are the ground rules about language and physical harm?  What happens if you break them? Kids have lots of ideas and when you collaborate on solutions to problems, you gain their buy-in and improve their participation. How can you take a time-apart when emotions are escalating so people have enough time to cool off before coming back together to talk about moving forward? Make a list of acceptable Calm-me-Down activities. Explore ways that people can make amends for hurtful comments or actions.
  3. Stay in the present and keep your goals for their relationship to yourself: Your kids have to figure out for themselves how to relate to each other and what the quality of that relationship will be. Your job is to foster safety and civility. Yes, you may feel sad about how they interact with each other and please discuss this with your partner, a friend, a relative or a therapist. But, telling kids things such as “One day, all you will have will be each other” or “Your sister loves you and wants to be friends” doesn’t acknowledge what’s the nature of how they are (not) getting along in this moment. Most kids live in the present and, for kids with ADHD with their NOW/NOT NOW brains, thinking ahead to some unknown future really doesn’t matter. Stick with what’s happening now and work with them to create interventions that foster accountability and acknowledge the validity of both positions in an argument. Help both kids accept the other person’s perspective by asking them to repeat what they hear their sibling saying instead of interpreting or arguing about it.

Remember kids’ relationships go up and down. There are good moments and tough ones. When things get heated, stay as centered as you can. If you need to collect yourself, head to the bathroom to wash your hands, drink some water and take some deep breaths. Once you’ve pulled yourself together, you can handle whatever is happening on the other side of the door.