Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How to Mediate Sibling Relationships Complicated by ADHD

Stressed mother with her down and her hand over her face as her children are angry at each other sitting on either side of herAre you tired of the arguments between your kids? Our sibling relationships are often the longest we experience in our lifetime. We all develop many integral skills within these core relationships. With siblings, we learn how to relate others, how to practice social skills and learn to negotiate. We also deal with  competition, disappointment, jealousy and fairness. Sibling relationships are integral to our lives and sense of ourselves. For kids who do not have siblings, this structure affects them too. Some may be happy to be single children and others may long for a sibling. As parents, our job is teach our kids how to work things out on their own and when to intervene constructively. In families living with ADHD, sibling relationships can be especially tricky to navigate.

The neurotypical child’s perspective in their sibling relationships

Siblings who identify as neurotypical often experience feelings of “otherness.” They can feel left out while their neurodivergent sibling receives what they perceive as “special care,” attention or favoritism. They might not be given the benefit of the doubt as often as their brother or sister. This fosters resentment towards the parents and the sibling. Neurotypical siblings might also receive harsher responses or more demanding behaviors from parents who may have higher expectations for them. They’re sometimes asked to be patient when they really feel angry or ignored.

Often, non-ADHD siblings can struggle with a pattern of negative emotions towards their families which are difficult to reconcile. Kids have shared with me:

    • Embarrassment (eg. when their sibling experiences public meltdowns, school struggles, and behavioral issues).
    • Frustration (eg. if they have been exhibiting patience with annoying behaviors and have politely asked their brother or sister with ADHD to stop unsuccessfully).  
    • Guilt (eg. when they are thriving and their sibling with ADHD is clearly struggling;  this can even lead to under-performance in some areas to relieve discomfort of their brother or sister). 
    • Pressure to be the “good kid” (eg. to set an example for the rest of their family and avoid causing their family additional stress). 
    • Hiding true feelings (eg. denial of any uncomfortable or conflictual issues so they remain “healthier” than the sibling with ADHD, in comparison).

Leveling the playing field to discourage sibling rivalry

As parents, you want to encourage role flexibility in your family. No child should the “good” one nor the “bad” one. If there is more than one child in a household with ADHD, learning disabilities (LD), or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it can be especially challenging for everyone to thrive because of how issues with attention, learning, or processing information manifest differently between family members.

Father in a light blue long-sleeve collared shirt laughs and bends over as he walks around his living room holding his daughter with pigtails and a yellow shirt on his back. She has her arms out like she's an airplane, and their both laughing and having fun.

Actively teach your children that we all have strengths and challenges. The goal is creating as level a playing field as possible within the family unit so kids can be both “good” and “bad.”

In fact, we all have executive functioning skills that run smoothly and need tweaking. Name what they are for each person, and discuss an approach where each person can work on improving one issue. Emphasize this so your child with ADHD doesn’t feel stuck as the person who needs all of the help in the family.

There are ways to help diffuse the tension in sibling relationships and create a stronger family ecosystem.

1. Choose empathy in your approach.

Working through issues with your ADHD child can set a very important example for how the rest of your family works together. Your children are always watching you, so it’s important to practice self-control and figure out what helps you manage yourself better when you are triggered. Take time to look at the big picture, understand every side, and practice compassion. Using humor can help to keep you level-headed and light-hearted. Your other children will follow your lead, and this will set an achievable example for the future. 

2. Practice themes of fairness and inclusion.

The world is already designed to make people feel a greater sense of competition. There is no need to overwhelm growing children with more comparison issues. Because children with ADHD often are the focus of more worry and concern, a parent’s extra engagement might stir up feelings of jealousy and comparison.

If you start to notice any extra stress or tension in any child, spending quality alone time with each could help boost their esteem. Fairness doesn’t mean equality but rather feeling listened to and included in the plans you create for the family. Use incentives and reward charts for everyone, but the expectations can differ according to age and ability. 

Two teenage siblings, sisters wearing white t-shirts sitting on chairs sideways next to each other, facing away away from each other, but looking at each other smiling. The girl on the left is on wearing green shorts, sitting on a gray living room chair, and holding a notebook. The girl on the right is wearing orange shorts, sitting on a yellow chair and is holding coffee.

3. Handle disagreements with the same finesse as every day conversations.

Practicing fairness with every child, no matter their neurological capabilities, is essential for fostering healthy sibling relationships. It also reduces any built-up tension or feelings of rage a child could experience at feeling less than. Talk with your partner (or a caring friend) about when to intervene in sibling arguments. Safety is a primary concern, of course, but also avoiding unnecessary escalations and hurtful statements is important. Then discuss with your kids about when you will intervene, when you will warn them to take some space and how they can ask for help when they are stuck with each other. Teach kids to deal with their conflict effectively, model how to negotiate problems, set up a plan for taking space when things escalate and come back later to discuss how to move forward and make amends.

4. Spend quality alone time with each child.

Each of your children benefits from alone time with each parent. Whether it’s a special activity or doing some errands with a Starbucks at the end, the point is to hang out together. My uncle used to schedule one-on-one time with each of my cousins once a month. One of my clients takes her daughter on errands on Saturdays that involve some stuff for the family and some fun time like going to Starbucks or getting ice cream. These types of quality time make a huge difference in nurturing parent-child connections and fostering healthy communication.

Read more blog posts:

Learn more from Dr. Saline in the news:

Deeper dive:

Managing Technology & Families (Video + Handout)

Home Study Seminar: What Your Child With ADHD Wishes You Knew and How You Can Help