Surviving an ADHD Sibling


As much as you try to be equal in what you give and expect from each child, children are different and the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) child is more different than most. Start from that honest acknowledgement and you have taken the first step toward understanding and improving the level of sibling rivalry in your family. You can be fair to all, but not always equal, because the ADHD child has different needs. Let's look at those differences and how they affect the family with an ADHD child.

Imagine a mobile sculpture with each member of your family a doll suspended by wires that hold the sculpture together. Now imagine the ADHD child's doll with a motorized helicopter blade on top. Yes, you get the picture. The high speed, random motion of the ADHD child tends to throw the entire system into chaos. Everyone is affected! Everyone is involved in the process of trying to balance the system. While the adults in the family may have an understanding of what is happening, siblings generally do not, unless Mum and Dad know about and explain ADHD and how it is affecting the ADHD child and the entire family system.


No tightrope walker has ever had as difficult a job as a parent trying to balance the attention given to an ADHD child with that given his or her siblings. It is easier to watch the child who sticks close to Mum or Dad than the ADHD child who can instantly disappear into the street, the toy store at the mall, or the attic crawl space. A pre-school ADHD child needs more supervision than one parent can give without a lion tamer's chair and whip (and we don't recommend that.) Tag-team supervision, with at least two people frequently trading off the task, may seem like ganging up on the child, but it works. Do not feel as though you are not a good parent if you ask for help in "taming" an ADHD youngster.

"But why do I have to watch him again ... you always make me do it?!?" Older siblings usually do not mind an occasional request to baby sit, however they are often caught in the double bind of responsibility without authority. Remember how difficult it is for you to keep your ADHD child under control and out of trouble? It is even more difficult for the older sibling who does not have the natural parental authority to be ringmaster for the family circus. Limit how long and how often you have the older sibling in charge of your ADHD child. It is often better to pay an adult or child-care center to care for the ADHD child than to push the limits of brotherly or sisterly love.


All children are "black holes" for attention, sucking up as much as any parent will provide, but ADHD children do demand more attention than their siblings. That demand can cause the siblings to be resentful or to imagine that the parent loves the ADHD child more. The sibling who usually does what is asked the first time may be angry at the ADHD child who is easily distracted from getting dressed and holds up the entire family. Be aware of that possibility, and plan to start the ADHD child earlier so everyone is ready to go at the same time.

When impulsivity personified, in the form of an ADHD child, bursts into every conversation with whatever happens to be on his or her mind, even the most patient siblings will start looking through the Yellow Pages for the number of the used child market to see what they can get on a trade-in. Parents who wish to avoid coming home to find that an older brother got a great deal swapping their ADHD child for a neighbor's dog are well advised to enforce clear limits on the ADHD child's behavior. Listen to the concerns and complaints of siblings with an open mind because they are communicating their distress. If they feel you are not hearing that distress, they may act out their anger towards the ADHD child.


If you are not careful, siblings can chose sides for the Super Bowl between two teams; the Saints and the SINNERS. Siblings who are age-appropriately "good" can appear and sometimes intentionally act better, exaggerating the contrast with the ADHD child's less appropriate behavior. Unless you like striped shirts and whistles, and enjoy the role of referee, it would be better to stop that form of scape-goating . You do not have to discourage a child who is applying for a sainthood, unless it is at the expense of another.

When it is, praise the improvement in the saint-to-be's behavior, but then clearly describe that scape-goating will have a predefined negative consequence. For example, "If you tease Johnny about how much better you can do that, then you will lose the benefit you normally receive for doing it." Encourage all children to excel on their own merits, not through trying to look better by knocking down someone else. Siblings sometimes regress or step out of their usual roles to imitate the behavior of the ADHD child. "Well ... if he gets so much attention from Mum and Dad for doing that - maybe I can too." While this is probably close to the top of your list of THE LAST THING I NEEDED TO HAVE HAPPEN, it can be a catalyst for discussion at a full family meeting (NOTE; NOT to be held at mealtime.) Clear GAME RULES, which are explained to all children at reasonable intervals, are at the core of improving any child's behavior.


Gradually, over the years between diapers and diplomas, each child must learn to be responsible and self-sufficient. Parents sometimes fall into the protective fallacy of doing for children what they are able to do for themselves. That keeps children dependent as opposed to encouraging independence. It gives children the false impression that they can manipulate the world to get what they want without effort on their part. A household works best when everyone does his or her share of the chores. You will also have fewer rebellions with which to contend. ADHD children are hurt by being excused from their chores, and helped by your insistence that, even if they march to the beat of a different drummer, they still have to do their share. What ever the task, it can be "chunked" into do-able parts so that the child can accomplish it. "First take the milk and butter off the table and put them in the refrigerator ... O.K. you did a good job doing that, now put the place mats aside and wipe the table." It is easy to forget to praise or to set aside the special moments each day for every one of the troops. Maybe it is only when you tuck them up in bed at night, but be sure to affirm their importance as a person, your love for them as they are, and to acknowledge, beyond that, the improvements that every child can accomplish. These are important moments for you to. Without that affirmation on at least a daily basis, you forget the essential distinction between the child you love and the behaviors that you do or do not like. Keeping the distinction in mind will help you to promote independence and growth in your child.


ADHD children can be less socially and emotionally mature than we would expect for their age. When the young ADHD child grabs a sibling's toy with a "I want what I want and I want it now" attitude, it is not surprising that the sibling does not want to play any more. Separating them until the issue subsides is more likely to be effective than insisting they share at that time. There is a very different aspect to sharing that goes beyond the sibling's understanding of ADHD. A parent may learn about ADHD through a local support group. This information can then be shared with extended family members, family friends, and teachers. Support groups offer many other reading materials to pass along to others.


On a personal and hopeful note, my family went through many difficult times when I was a classic ADHD boy. When asked why I ended up working with ADHD families, I claim it was my Mother's curse; "When you grow up, I hope you have to deal with kids like you!" So, to my parents, whose patience was sorely tried, and to my sisters who, at best, tolerated an outrageous brother, I offer sincere thanks. Not long after my sisters and I passed the trials, tribulations, and raging hormones of adolescence, we gradually outgrew the struggles of childhood. We have successfully settled into a truly caring relationship. Despite the many conflicts we went through and the incessant teasing which still persists, we actually love each other dearly. Although it may seem impossible in the midst of your day to day experiences, in the long run the passage through can strengthen us all.

Copyright George W. Dorry, Ph. D.
Dr Dorry is a psychologist in private practice who specializes in the assessment and treatment of childhood and adult ADD. He is the founder and director of The Attention and Behavior center in Denver, Colorado. He is a member of the ADDAG Board of Directors and served as their first Chairman of the Board from the organisation's inception in March 1988 until January of 1995.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2007, June 6). Surviving an ADHD Sibling, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Last Updated: February 13, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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