With families spending so much time social distancing together, spikes in sibling rivalry are inevitable. In my previous post, I talked about the reasons why kids with ADHD are more prone to sibling conflict, and steps that parents can take to help siblings get along better overall. Some kids with ADHD need extra support from their parents, in the form of concrete social skills that they can use to resolve arguments with their siblings. As a parent, you are your child’s best social skills coach, and you can help your child learn the skills they need to get along better with their siblings. This includes giving your child (and their siblings) specific tools to use when arguments erupt and rewarding them for using these tools effectively.
Here are eight steps for coaching your ADHD child and their siblings through conflicts:
Focus on one simple conflict first. Choose one relatively straightforward conflict that happens frequently. Think about how you would ideally like your child and their sibling to respond – including their words, actions, and tone of voice. Write down exactly what you want them to say and do, making sure to keep it simple.
For example, if they often get into arguments because they can’t agree on how something should be done, then ‘rock, paper, scissors’ (as simple as it may sound) can be used to resolve this problem about 90% of the time. If the issue is around bragging when they win a game or pouting when they lose, then teaching them to calmly say “good game” and walk away will help.
Use a simple reward system. Changing how you behave with your sibling is hard, and most kids will need an extra boost of motivation. Use a simple system that requires siblings to work together to earn rewards. I’ve found that ‘marble jar’-style reward systems tend to work best here. With a marble jar, kids add a marble (or other object, like a cotton ball) every time they use their new skills and tools. When they reach the fill line, they earn their joint reward. Check out my earlier post on this topic for tips on how to use a marble jar reward system effectively.
Give your kids a heads-up. During a calm moment, talk to your kids about the new tool you’ll be teaching them and the rewards they’ll be earning. You can keep things pretty high-level at this point and dive into the details later when you’re ready to get started. When you’re talking to your kids, keep it positive and avoid placing any blame for the challenges they’ve been having.
Instead, let them know that it’s been harder for everyone to get along lately because the family has been spending so much time together. To help them get along better (and have more fun), you’re going to teach them a new tool to use when they feel an argument coming on. And when they use the new tool together, they’ll be able to earn rewards!
Role-play the conflict and the response. When you’re ready, describe the new tool (the words, behavior, and tone of voice) to your kids, and have them role-play a conflict and using the new tool.
Introduce the reward system. Describe the reward system to your kids. Let them know exactly how they’ll earn rewards and what the rewards will be. Ideally, involve them in choosing the rewards so they are as invested as possible and will work hard to earn them.
Prompt the siblings to use their new tool. It’s going to take practice to make the new tool a habit, so at first you’ll need to prompt your kids to use their new tool. You may even need to feed them their lines step by step the first few times they use the tool. After they get the hang of it, a simple reminder should be all they need.
Reward them consistently. Every time the siblings successfully resolve a conflict, praise and reward them. If you’re using a marble jar, have them add marbles to the jar and remind them that they are getting closer and closer to earning their reward. Make sure the reward goal is reasonable. I recommend that the bar is set so that they are able to earn a reward about once a week, or once every few days.
Repeat the process for more complex conflicts. Once your kids have had success with learning a new tool to resolve a simple conflict, work with them to come up with strategies for resolving more complex conflicts. The tools may look a little different, but the rest of the process will stay the same.
Remember that changing behavior is hard for kids, especially when it comes to their siblings. So, be patient and stay positive. With a little practice and a lot of praise, you’ll see improvement in your children’s relationships with each other, and your ADHD child will have learned new social skills that they can also use with their friends once schools and camps are open again.
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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