Social distancing requirements are affecting every area of our lives, including our family relationships. Siblings are spending more time together than ever before, which means there’s greater opportunity for family bonding and greater opportunity for sibling conflict. All siblings argue and fight sometimes, but when one or more of the siblings have ADHD, it can seem like the conflicts never stop.
Having ADHD makes it harder to cope with the challenges that come with close relationships. Social skills, the ability to regulate emotions and tolerate feelings of frustration and disappointment, and the ability to see things from another person’s perspective are all important when it comes to navigating sibling relationships. All kids with ADHD struggle in at least one of these areas, and the toll it takes on their relationships with their siblings is obvious.
Dealing with sibling rivalry is one of parenting’s biggest challenges. It takes patience to help kids with ADHD and their siblings develop positive relationships, but the good news is that if you stay positive and use strategies consistently, you will see progress. Many of the strategies that will lead to improved sibling relationships are the same things that will help you and your family function better overall during COVID-19 confinement.
These include taking care of yourself so you’re able to stay calm under pressure, creating structure and routines that provide your children with the security and stability they need during these uncertain times, and meeting your children’s basic needs for sleep, regular meals and snacks, and exercise. When this solid foundation is in place for your family, the following strategies focused specifically on sibling relationships will be much more effective.
Spend quality one-on-on time with each sibling. One of the things that makes sibling relationships so challenging is that brothers and sisters often feel like they are in competition for attention from their parents. You can’t eliminate the competition, but you can minimize it by scheduling quality one-on-one time with each sibling. Some parents find that 10 minutes of one-on-one time each day works well, while others find that longer periods of time (20 or 30 minutes) a few times a week work better for their family.
During one-on-one time, remove all distractions (including cell phones) and let your child pick the activity or topic of conversation. Avoid video games and videos during one-on-one time. Screen-based activities tend to undermine one-on-one time because your child becomes so focused on the screen that they don’t even notice your attention.
Have a ‘family night” once a week. Family nights help siblings feel connected, bonded, and like important members of the family unit. Family nights can take the form of family game nights, movie nights, or even family walks or bike rides. Do whatever works for your family. The most important thing is that they are planned in advance, happen consistently, and are fun!
Identify and prevent triggers. Be on the lookout for the situations and activities that are the biggest triggers and do your best to prevent or minimize them. Common triggers are too much unstructured time, too much “together time,” competitive games (rather than collaborative activities like Lego, crafts, bike riding, etc.), “high value” toys that both kids want to play with at the same time, meltdowns after screen time, and basic needs like hunger, fatigue, and lack of physical activity and outside time.
Validate your children’s feelings. Sibling relationships are hard, and kids are really struggling right now. Something what seems like a minor problem to us as adults may feel like a true injustice to your child. Let both siblings know that you understand how hard the situation is, and how unfair it might feel. This doesn’t change the outcome of their situation, but it will help them feel like they are seen and heard by their parents – which will go a long way when it comes to your relationship with your child as well as their relationship with their sibling.
Provide clear expectations for sibling behavior. Kids who struggle with social skills need clear expectations and directions. This means telling them exactly how you want them to respond when a conflict comes up. You can give them specific phrases to use, like “I don’t like it when you take that without asking,” and tell them when it’s appropriate to walk away from the situation and cool down or get help from an adult. Some kids need more coaching than others, and in my next post, I’ll share specific steps for effectively coaching kids with ADHD on sibling social skills.
Catch your children being good. If you are like most parents, you may be quick to intervene when your children are fighting but say very little when they are getting along well. This means that your children don’t get any feedback about their behavior when things are going smoothly, but get lots of feedback and attention (even if it’s negative attention) when things go south. To see more positive sibling behavior, provide feedback when things are going smoothly. Short and specific praise is best, like “I’m really impressed with how well you worked together just now.” But if that feels forced, then a simple comment that shows you’re paying attention can also work well, like “You two look like you’re having a lot of fun right now!”
Intervene right away if things get physical. Overall, it’s a good idea to give siblings an opportunity to work things out before jumping in (unless you’re using a specific coaching strategy). But if things get physical, don’t wait. Jump in immediately and de-escalate the situation. A punishment will probably be appropriate, and you can hand out the punishment quickly. But when it comes to discussing the situation, wait until everyone has calmed down before the conversation begins.
Helping kids learn how to manage sibling conflicts isn’t easy, but the payoff is great – happier kids who are creating a sibling bond that will last a lifetime.
ABOUT DR. MARY ROONEY
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.