Extraordinary Parenting; Strong Siblings

By Eve Kessler, Esq.


Having a child with LD or ADHD requires extraordinary parenting skills to manage strained family dynamics • Below, our expert provides guidelines to navigate the emotional minefield, minimize friction, and prevent long-lasting damage 

Having a child with learning differences or ADHD has a ripple effect that impacts all family members, especially siblings. Just ask David Sylvestro, whose decades-long career as a psychologist at schools for kids with learning and attention issues put him on the front lines of dealing with family dynamics that result when siblings with and without learning differences live under the same roof. The litany of what both sides experience often includes jealousy, anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, resentment, confusion, embarrassment, and even abandonment. 

What Can Parents Do?

To some degree, sibling rivalry is normal and even healthy. But when garden-variety rivalry becomes contentious and shows no signs of abating, it’s your job as a parent to manage the situation to prevent long-term harm and dysfunction. Following are Sylvestros suggestions for how to lessen family stress, rise to the role of extraordinary parenting,” and help raise strong siblings.

1. Educate EVERYONE in the family about the strengths and challenges all members bring to the table. Its helpful for kids to know that parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles have their struggles and challenges, too. Discuss everyones unique skills and difficulties in as much detail as possible, using descriptive terms everyone can understand. 

2. Include siblings without LD or ADHD in the discussion. If kids dont understand their siblings specific needs or have the language to explain those challenges to others, they may be embarrassed, confused, resentful, or anxious. They may even worry that their sibs problems are contagious. On the other hand, the more they know, the more supportive they are likely to become.

3. Acknowledge and accept your kids feelings. They’re real. Your job is to help your kids find constructive ways to act on their feelings. Encourage discussion: Ask about the feelings underlying their behaviors and what helps them feel better. Share how you address your own negative emotions: When I feel angry or frustrated, it helps me to move to a quiet space for a few minutes.” You want your kids to know you have feelings, too, and that its common to become frustrated.

4. Model the qualities you want your kids to adopt (patience, tolerance, acceptance, resourcefulness, resilience, etc.). “Its hard to be patient and tolerant all the time, especially when things spin out of control,” says Sylvestro, “so aim for 33%.” Any improvement will have a positive impact. 

5. Celebrate differences and accomplishments—and avoid making comparisons. Find ways for each sibling to be recognized, to feel good about themselves, and to feel appreciated and loved for who they are. This helps promote self-esteem and prevent divisiveness. Using third-party checks to deliver praise is a good strategy (I spoke with Grandma and she thinks youre doing a great job reading to your sister.”). 

6. Design tasks where sibs can work together for an incentive they both prize. You want your kids to be able to work well together. Its not just about the final product: “Acts of cooperation and responsibility-sharing are rewarding in and of themselves,” says Sylvestro.

7. Build in time to spend with each child individually. Kids need time with parents, but it doesnt have to be the same amount of time; it’s the quality of time that counts. Make whatever time you spend sacrosanct.

8. Enlist the aid of a local therapist or sibling workshop, if sibling frustrations and antagonisms persist or worsen. The longer conflict lingers unabated, the harder it will be to resolve.

9. Promote social engagement outside the family. Being with kids and adults other than family can be good for everyone. It offers opportunities for practicing pro-social behavior and gives you chances to praise incremental positive change.

10. Teach and model positive listening and conflict-resolution skills. For example, Let me check if Im understanding you…”  “What I just said was important. Can you tell me what it means, so I can make sure I said it correctly?” Active listening phrases focus the kids on how important it is to communicate clearly.

11. Ensure that the sib with special needs has the opportunity to contribute to family responsibilities. To the degree possible, these should be just beyond their capabilities. “Because we want kids to reach,” says Sylvestro, “We need to teach and teach and review and re-teach.”

Explaining LD & ADHD to Sibs

How and when to explain the siblings unique needs to the kids without LD or ADHD depends on what theyre able to grasp. As a rule of thumb, Sylvestro suggests at age 9 or 10 kids can understand a simplified explanation. Begin by describing their sibling’s strengths and challenges, and get more detailed as they age. Address all questions honestly. Its important for your kids to feel comfortable coming to you with their concerns and feelings.

Sylvestro suggests using language such as, Different brains work differently. There are some things you learn quickly and sometimes your sib takes longer. Thats how their brain works at this time. Theyre not doing it on purpose, trying to be difficult, or looking for attention. Remember when they couldnt….; now they can….”

This article is based on Kids with Special Needs: Extraordinary Parenting, Strong Siblings, a SPED*NET presentation by school psychologist David Sylvestro. Eve Kessler, Esq., a former criminal appellate attorney, is Executive Director of SPED*NET, and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids. Click here for a recording of the webinar. 

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