Coping Strategies for Siblings

Health Writer

Children with ADHD require extra care and attention. Sharing a home with an ADHD child can cause siblings to experience feelings of frustration and inadequacy, but there are steps parents can take to ensure that each of their children feels equally loved and cared for.

How would you describe the family life in a home where at least one child had Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD)? Fun, interesting, chaotic, hectic, frustrating, spontaneous, exhausting, or all of the above? Family life can be many things, but rarely is it peaceful. Parents may feel frustrated and overwhelmed. Children with ADHD often try hard to behave but still manage to get into trouble over and over. Siblings might feel neglected, causing resentment, anger and sometimes guilt.

My oldest son has ADHD, as well as other mental illnesses. He required attention beyond that of any of the other children in the household. Altogether, there are four additional children, two from my husband's previous marriage and two from our marriage together. Raising five children is a feat in itself. Raising a child with special needs is a feat in itself. Putting the two together creates many exhausting days. Homework time with my son could take hours to complete, even when teachers told me homework should only take between a half hour and an hour. Finding the time to help the other children that needed help was sometimes tough.

My son is now out of school and life skills issues still take time away from my youngest children. I love all of my children and their success is important to me. Even so, day after day, time is spent in trying to help my son get his life on track. His needs require my time, energy and attention. When the other children manage to complete their homework without asking for help, I accept it and don't question their self-sufficiency. When the younger children play quietly by themselves, I welcome the break. But don't they deserve the same attention as my oldest son?

As easy as it may be to allow siblings to become self-reliant before they are ready, it is not necessarily in their best interest. In speaking with other parents of children with ADHD through a support group I moderated, there are a number of ways in which siblings can act out their frustrations:

  • Siblings can become self-reliant at an early age, keep to themselves, avoid family activities or become quiet. This can be seen in hesitation to ask for help, even when needed and spending a large amount of time playing by themselves. Some children indicated they felt guilty asking for help because they knew their sibling had special needs.
  • Siblings can try to be perfect to please adults, including parents, teachers and caregivers. Sometimes siblings will consistently point out what they are doing right, needing affirmation of how good they are.

  • Siblings can start to do poorly in school or misbehave at home, mimicking the behavior of the child with ADHD. This may be because they see this as a way to get their parents' attention.

  • Siblings can demand attention, throw temper tantrums or consistently interrupt their parents. This may be to compensate for feeling as if they are not noticed. If children with ADHD are going through a particularly rough time, requiring additional attention, these types of behaviors in siblings may be intensified.

In many cases, the parents in my support group and I noticed siblings developing feelings of low self-worth, believing they are not as important to their parents and therefore are not worthy of love.

There are a number of strategies that parents can implement in their homes to help siblings overcome these feelings:

  • Find ways to involve your children in activities they are interested in. Check your local area for dance classes, music lessons, or clubs that would help to provide them with a sense of belonging and involvement.

  • Set limits on homework time with your ADHD child. Talk to their teacher about cutting homework down. Maybe your child can do every other question for homework. Let the teacher know how long homework is taking to complete each night and ask them for suggestions to limit the time or amount of work.

  • Find at least 10 minutes each evening to spend privately with each child. Ask them about their day, school, homework, their friends, etc. Let them know that they are important to you. Make sure the rest of the family knows that during this time you are not to be disturbed, it is your special time to spend one on one with each child.

  • Look at the friends and adults in your child's life. Do they have someone they can confide in? Set up play dates with other children to make sure your children have some time to just have fun. Ask relatives if they could spend some time doing something special with your child.

  • Once a month, take your child somewhere special, just the two of you. Do this for each child. It might be going out to lunch together, or just sitting in the park together. Let them know that you enjoy just being with them and remind them how important they are. This allows both of you to leave the household behind for a short time.

  • Monitor the time your siblings spend together. For some children with ADHD, taunting siblings becomes a game. Make sure there is not any bullying and siblings are not feeling helpless to stop it.

  • Talk with your entire family about ADHD. Explain how it may impact all of their lives. Teach them about the symptoms and what they can understand for their age. The more they understand ADHD, the more they will be able to cope with the daily struggles.

  • Keep daily routines. Letting everyone know what to expect is important and helps to build a feeling of security. This also can help decrease disruptions and maintain a sense of order in the household.

  • Monitor situations when you give your children chores to complete. Children with ADHD tend to become distracted and often do not complete their chores. Make sure your other children are not completing tasks for them. Reward children for their effort, not the amount of work completed.