All sibling relationships have their ups and downs. Siblings are our first friends, our childhood tormentors, and our longest-lasting connection. With a shared childhood, siblings can often understand each other better than anyone—including how to push each other’s buttons!
These hallmark features of sibling relationships remain true when siblings have different neurological profiles—for instance, when one is neurodivergent and the other not. But there can be additional complexities that make fostering a healthy sibling relationship a bit more work. Here are some tips for nurturing a loving, supportive relationship between your children, when one is neurodivergent, and the other is not.
Be open about their differences.
Staying away from the subject of differences can inadvertently send the message that it is taboo or shameful. Instead, take a step toward a deeper mutual understanding by sharing age-appropriate information with your children about how they think differently. Perspective-taking can be difficult for all children, particularly those who are very young and those with neurodiversity. Siblings can offer a rich mine of learning opportunities to build skills in asking for and listening to another’s point of view. Talk about emotions openly and often to teach your children the range of reactions individuals can have to the same event. Also build a history of open communication, in which your children can come to you with their questions and worries.
Share positive experiences.
One key to establishing a strong relationship is to share positive experiences. This can be tricky if you have children with vastly different interests, sensory preferences, or abilities. Don’t get stuck in old-fashioned thinking that family togetherness only means board games or sports. Instead, find new ways for siblings to play together. One way to expand everyone’s palate for fun is to have regular family time in which each person takes turns determining the activity. In its simplest form, this shows your children how much you value your time together and respect each family member’s interests, even when you don’t share them. When your children are ready for it, you can use this as a perspective-taking lesson about considering what others will enjoy.
Assist with conflicts.
When you’re trying to foster a healthy sibling relationship, advice from others is often to “let them work it out on their own.” However, if your children have different neurological profiles, you may need to help your children build skills to problem-solve their conflicts first. You can prevent physical tussles and diffuse situations before they escalate by teaching them to separate from one another to calm down. To prepare, have them practice going to separate “calm-down spots” during conflict-free times. While this method will help in the short-term, to support conflict resolution long-term, seek to learn each child’s methods of communicating, and help them grow those skills so they can use them to express their needs—and better understand each other.
Seek out similarities.
Although differences among our children may be huge, look for commonalities, and mention them often. Do both of your children like ice cream or have the same kissable cheeks? Emphasize the similarities, particularly when they involve a shared goal, such as not wanting to go to bed or clean their room. After all, siblings are rarely closer than those shared moments of ganging up on their parents! Even a tense moment in the family can be an opportunity to point out that they’re on the same team.
Parenting multiple children is a stressful endeavour, and when siblings are different, it can feel easier to just let them do things separately. But siblings will be in each other’s lives for longer than most other friends and family, so this is a relationship worth investing time in right from the beginning. A healthy sibling relationship can be a lifelong source of comfort and support—and this is something we want for all of our children.
What it’s like being the sibling of a child with neurodiversity?
Siblings of children with disabilities have unique challenges—and siblings of neurodivergent children are no exception. But as with virtually everything related to neurodiversity, each situation is unique. For some siblings, life with a neurodivergent sibling can be overwhelmingly difficult. For others, it has its ups and downs. There are even some children who see their sibling’s neurodivergence as a plus rather than a minus. Despite these differences, however, there are some shared experiences and challenges.
Top Challenges Faced by Siblings
Whether the sibling of a neurodivergent child is rich or poor, mellow or anxious, there are certain shared challenges.
Ableist Embarrassment. This is one of the most difficult challenges because it’s very real—and impossible to avoid. Children, once they are past kindergarten, are judgmental people. And, unlike adults, they are liable to pass judgment out loud, in public. No neurotypically developing child finds it easy or pleasant to hear their peers ask “what’s wrong with your sibling? They are so weird!” or hear “your sibling is a freak!” But it’s very rare a child hasn’t heard such comments. As they grow older, siblings will need to develop skills to express their support of their neurodivergent sibling and an intolerance of ableist bias when they bring home friends, find a mate, or marry.
Addressing Resentment. When a sibling is neurodivergent, the entire family must adjust. It is important to tend to the mental health of neurotypical siblings to prevent feelings of resentment towards their neurodivergent loved one. The neurotypical developing child will likely have to compromise, say “no” more often, and bend to their siblings’ needs and tastes. For example, neurotypical siblings may have to watch the same movie 50 times, go home from an event before they’re ready, or say “no” to throwing a party—in order to accommodate their neurodivergent sibling. As they grow up, siblings may find that their parents have less time or money to help with big expenses such as college, a wedding, or buying a home,
Greater Expectations. When there is a disabled family member, other family members must help support them—and that includes siblings. Siblings of a neurodivergent child (even when they are very young) are more likely to be asked to manage their own feelings and needs, to take on more household tasks, or to postpone their own pleasures. As adults, siblings may need to take on more and more responsibility for a neurodivergent sibling as it becomes more difficult for their parents or guardians.
Why Sibling Experiences Are So Different From One Another
Yes, there are some shared issues—but there are some vast differences among siblings of neurodivergent children. If you bring together a group of typically developing children with neurodivergent siblings, you’ll hear some very, very different points of view, concerns, and challenges. Here’s why:
Neurodivergent children are very different from one another.
Because neurodiversity is such a wide-ranging spectrum, neurodivergent children and teens may present in completely different ways. As a result, siblings may find it relatively easy or extremely challenging to live in the same household. For example:
Sibling A is living with an autistic sibling who is actually a lot of fun. Sure, they may perseverate on Disney characters and have no personal friends—and yes, they occasionally melt down for no obvious reason. But they are kind, caring, and enjoy a lot of the same movies and activities as Sibling A. Yes, there are challenges—but they don’t feel overwhelming. In fact, they may in some ways be LESS overwhelming than the challenges associated with a bossy, domineering (but neurotypically developing) sibling.
Sibling B is living with a brother who is non-verbal, aggressive, and liable to physically destroy objects around the house. At times, Sibling B is truly frightened for their safety. There is no way Sibling B would bring a friend to the house, and no possibility of going out safely and pleasantly with his brother. Life at home is rarely anything like “normal,” and the challenges to mental and physical well-being are very real.
Sibling C is living with a sister who is brilliant, quirky, and extremely anxious. On the one hand, Sibling C’s autistic sister is already programming video games at age 8. On the other hand, this same sister is very anxious, has extreme sensory challenges, and finds it physically painful to be in a mall, a cinema, or even a family gathering. Sibling C is proud of their sister’s accomplishments, but can find it difficult to be around her, and is never quite sure when she will “explode.” As a result, they avoid their sister whenever possible.
Siblings are different from one another.
Every child is unique, and individual children’s responses to having a neurodivergent sibling will vary too. While one child may find the experience trying and difficult, another may find it rewarding.
Is it easier to be the younger or the older sibling of a child who is neurodivergent? Just like being older or younger than a neurotypical developing sibling, there are ups and downs to each.
The younger sibling of a neurodivergent child has never lived without neurodiversity in their life. On the one hand, this may mean that they find it easier to manage the challenges that come along with having an neurodivergent sibling. On the other hand, they may find it harder to establish themself within the family as a person with their own needs, challenges, talents, and personality traits.
The older sibling of a child who is neurodivergent may be frustrated when parents’ attention is pulled to a younger sibling with a disability. Or, on the other hand, they may find it relatively easy to manage the situation because they have already established their own place in the family, school, and community.
Different temperaments and personalities can also make a big difference. For some siblings, living with a neurodivergent child can be a major challenge, while to others it is an opportunity.
Sibling X is very sensitive and easily upset. Having an autistic sibling making strange sounds, repeating the same words over and over, and melting down at dinner sends them right over the edge.
Sibling Z is empathetic and enjoys finding ways to help their autistic sibling to manage difficult situations. Far from feeling overwhelmed, they actually enjoy figuring out how to help their sibling to calm themself, express themself, and interact with others.
Family attitudes and situations are different from one another.
Neurodivergence aside, family attitudes and situations can have a huge impact on children. Add neurodiversity into the mix, and ordinary family conflicts, challenges, strengths, and flexibility become a very big deal. For a neurotypically developing sibling, parents’ behaviours and emotions can become a source of positivity and strength—or not. For example:
Family A includes a child with autism. The child’s parents grow closer and work together to find appropriate schools, supports, and funding. When autism becomes overwhelming, they respond calmly, handle the situation, and then regroup. At the same time, they work hard to be sure that neurotypically developing siblings are supported at school and in their social lives—even if that sometimes means that friends or public transportation are part of the mix. As a result, the child without autism may learn that challenges can be met and managed, and that adversity should not stand in the way of a full, loving life.
Family B includes a child with autism. The child’s parents or guardians blame one another for the autism or its effects on family life and, as a result, they split up. One guardian ends up with custody of both children and is overwhelmed, angry, and frustrated. When autism becomes overwhelming at home, the guardian walks out the door or goes into a rage. As a result, the neurotypically developing child grows up in a chaotic situation and may learn that challenges lead to a breakdown in family life.
Family finances vary.
Money may not buy love, but it can buy a great many things for a family living with neurodiversity. While it’s possible to have very little money and still manage neurodiversity with few emotional upheavals, it’s not easy.
Poverty and neurodiversity can be an incredibly challenging mix. Yes, there are resources available for parents or guardians with disabled children—but those resources are difficult to access, frustrating to manage, and may be severely limited depending upon the family’s location. Parents or guardians who are working hourly jobs don’t have the flexibility they need to visit social security and state agencies during weekday hours. Those who don’t have their own computers and internet access don’t have the tools they need to research options and find therapies, services, or treatment options.
Parents or guardians with significant funds can essentially buy their way out of some of these frustrations. If they are working at higher-level jobs, they have more flexibility to attend conferences, go to meetings, and manage agencies and benefits. If they don’t qualify for services or are denied desired educational settings, they can pay for private providers. If they feel overwhelmed, they can often pay for respite care.
How do these differences affect neurotypically developing siblings?
There are a variety of impacts:
If money is going to provide services for the neurodivergent child, little may be left for other children. As a result, the neurotypical sibling may become resentful of both guardians and the neurodivergent sibling.
If all available time is spent on managing services or caring for the neurodivergent child, the sibling may feel abandoned or neglected. This, too, can lead to resentment or anger.
If parents or guardians are overwhelmed by the amount of time and energy required to manage services for a neurodivergent child, they may have little energy left over to help with homework, coaching, chauffeuring, or other ordinary guardian activities.
Parents or guardians who have little time or money may not have the resources they need to stay closely attuned to siblings’ activities and needs. They may not be aware of problems at school, emotional issues, or potentially risky behaviours.
Expectations placed on siblings vary.
What is expected of a child with a neurodivergent sibling? The answer will depend a great deal upon their family’s size, finances, cultural background, and emotional stability. The answer will also change as the neurodivergent and neurotypical sibling grow older—and guardians are less capable of handling things on their own.
In a large extended family, there may be multiple individuals able and willing to help care for a neurodivergent child. In a very small family, the neurotypically developing child may be asked to take on significant responsibility for their neurodivergent sibling. This expectation may increase as parents or guardians age, to the point where the neurotypical sibling is expected to become the adult caregiver to everyone else.
How to help all of your children
Whatever your circumstances, and whatever the abilities and challenges of your neurodivergent child, it’s important to keep your neurotypically developing child’s needs in mind. That said, however, it’s also important to remember that disability in the family is not a bad thing. Given the right circumstances, a child with a neurodivergent sibling can gain great personal strengths. Empathy, responsibility, flexibility, resourcefulness, and kindness can all come from the experience.
Here are some tips for ensuring that your neurotypical child has a positive outcome:
- Treat neurodiversity as a part of life—something to understand and respond to, rather than something to avoid mentioning or thinking about. Teach all children about what neurodiversity is, and what it isn’t.
- Treat all children with respect, and model respect for the neurodivergent child.
- Be aware that a neurotypically developing child needs your attention and love, and grab any moments you can to listen, share, have fun, problem solve, or just hang out.
- Know that a neurotypically developing child is coping with some unusual demands and recognize the challenges they face and overcome.
- Carve out special “just us” times for the neurotypically developing child. You may need to trade off with a partner (if you have one), but that can be even better.
- Plan ahead for your neurotypical child’s needs, and know-how you will handle situations before they arise. This applies to small issues (what will we do if the neurodivergent child dysregulates in the supermarket?) and big challenges (how will help the neurotypical child manage the costs of college?). You needn’t always cater to your neurotypical child’s whims, but you do need a plan.
- Be consistent and reliable. It may be hard to live with a neurodivergent sibling, but it’s much harder to live with chaos or emotional turmoil. Most neurotypically developing children can adjust to challenging situations when they feel safe and cared for.
- Listen to the neurotypically developing child, and watch for any signs of anxiety, depression, or risky behaviour.
- Know when a neurotypical child really needs you and find a way to be there. This may require calling in an occasional favour or shelling out some extra money from time to time—but it can mean the world to the child.
Sibling relationships are one of the earliest and most long-lasting relationships we have — but just try to explain that to a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old both intent on playing with the same thing at the same time.
While these types of family fights are headaches for parents, studies show that sibling rivalry can actually be beneficial, teaching children skills such as negotiating, compromising and resolving conflicts.
That doesn’t mean sibling squabbles are only beneficial. The same study notes, “If sibling rivalry continues into adulthood, there will be risks to financial competition, relationships and care, where the competition can replace competition to get parental attention that occurs early in life.”
So, how can parents ensure they get the benefits of early conflict resolution, but preserve their children’s relationships — all while maintaining a harmonious household? There are some things that parents can do to manage sibling rivalry.
The main causes of sibling rivalry are about what children see as fairness.
Your children strive for equal treatment. “Three things are typically at the root of most sibling rivalry:
- children feeling they’re getting unequal amounts of attention
- degrees of responsiveness
- severity of discipline,”
says Donna Housman, Ed.D., founder and CEO of the Housman Institute. If they feel like one child is being singled out for special attention, or if their punishments are harsher than their brother or sister’s, expect conflicts to arise.
This can be very challenging when your family is neurodiverse as you can’t always make things equal as your children have different needs.
While children expect to get their fair share, they don’t want to be treated as carbon copies of each other, either. “All children want to feel special and unique, and while they’re developing their sense of individuality, they want to be recognized by their parents as not just interchangeable siblings,” Dr. Housman adds. “Most siblings experience some degree of jealousy or competition. How parents handle this reality is the key to how deep and long the rivalry runs.”
To cut down on sibling rivalry, avoid comparisons between children.
It creates needless competition and makes them feel less unique. “Don’t use labels when talking about your children, either,” Dr. Holmes-Knight says. “Parents will refer to their children as ‘the athletic one,’ or ‘the smart one.’ These labels can create separation between siblings.” Even if you’re not so explicitly comparing them with labels, you might be fostering comparisons by constantly praising one child or criticizing one child more than the others, or clearly paying more attention to one child’s needs and interests.
Why can’t my children get on?
Siblings exist within a hotbed of psychology, hormones and emotions all jostling to be heard and this will come out in the way they respond to each other. When one or more siblings are neurodivergent, behaviours can be more extreme and feelings more deep-rooted. As one mum explains: ‘My boys, who both have ADHD, often fight and wrestle. I know this is a common way for boys to interact and, particularly for my boys, it seems to relieve some pent-up frustration. But every time they do it, even when it’s done in fun, I’m waiting for one of them to go too far or be too impulsive and for it to end in tears (which it usually does, along with blood, bruises and broken items of crockery or furniture).’
Some of the issues surrounding neurodivergent siblings might be:
Finding it hard to connect – we’re all different and children don’t necessarily have the maturity to embrace differences the way adults do. If siblings have different interests, different reactions to situations and different outlooks on life, it can be hard for them to find common ground. If siblings are a mix of neurotypical and neurodivergent, it can be even harder for them to ‘get’ each other.
Jealousy – the green-eyed monster is a constant presence between all siblings but jealousy can be even more of an issue when a sibling is neurodivergent. A neurotypical child may feel jealous that a neurodivergent child gets more of their parents’ time and attention, or a neurodivergent child may feel jealous of how easy life seems for their neurotypical sibling.
Resentment – jealousy on both sides can easily spill over into resentment. A neurotypical child may resent the stress they feel the neurotypical child puts on the family or the way they perceive their needs as dominating family events. A neurotypical child may also feel that their neurodivergent sibling gets away with things they don’t.
Embarrassment – alongside resentment, children may feel embarrassed about the behaviour of their siblings. This embarrassment can be even more powerful when a child doesn’t understand the reasons behind it.
Compliance – some neurotypical children ‘give in’ to their neurodivergent siblings or sink into the background as they don’t want to cause extra stress for their parents which can then cause internalised resentment.
Indignation – children have a strong sense of fairness, along with a strong sense of indignation when they feel they haven’t been treated fairly. A neurotypical child may feel frustrated, hurt or angry if a neurodivergent sibling overreacts or lashes out at them, and a neurodivergent child may feel frustrated if their sibling is allowed to do things they aren’t.
When more than one child is neurodivergent
You might expect that, if both/all of your children are neurodivergent, they’ll have more understanding of each other – and therefore more patience. But it doesn’t always work like that. When more than one child (and possibly one or both parents – see this article on learning about our own neurodivergence) find emotional regulation and impulse control difficult and face sensory overload, the results can be explosive.
In this situation, giving each child their own time and space can be really important. Children can learn great life lessons from their siblings about arguing effectively, finding compromises, forgiving quickly and building resilience: but sometimes, for everyone’s sanity, the best thing you can do is step in and give everyone some space.
If children share a room, then having an allotted time when each can enjoy the space alone can be helpful. Creating another chill-out zone for when the other child has bagged the bedroom can help avoid arguments.
As well as making physical space, it’s important to make emotional space for everyone’s needs and to allow opportunities for everyone to shine. This might look different for different families. It might be planning an activity that everyone can be a part of – going on a walk, playing a game or watching a favourite programme. If one child is great at baking, get them to make treats for a family film time; if another child soaks up trivia, get them to run a family quiz. And create opportunities for your children to come together – work it in your favour and get them to make a dinner of their choice, or pit them together against the parents to come up with parenting ‘rules’ for you to follow (to be negotiated!).