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Ghost Children: Brothers and Sisters of ADHD Children

Non-ADHD brothers and sisters become ghost-like in the family.

Anyone who spends time with ADHD children knows the excessive talking, impulsivity, and strong emotional expressions so characteristic of these young ones. Even though we know that ADHD results from less effective operation of brain mechanisms, parents find it hard sometimes to handle these behaviors.

In families, ADHD results in a different life experience for the members. Parents often find themselves repeating directions or making requests several times. Over the course of months or years, parents tend to become less patient and more authoritarian, using "consequences" as threats to gain compliance. Often, parents become impatient and irritable. Eventually, parents pay attention much more to the ADHD behaviors but almost no attention to good behaviors.

Parents eventually, without realizing it, invest large amounts of time rearing an ADHD child. And the unintended consequence is less attention paid to the other children in the family. The non-ADHD brother or sister becomes like a ghost, for a while.

The ghostly siblings eventually force parents to pay attention to them. They often begin to act out in the family around age 4 or 5, as they realize that mom and dad notice misbehavior. The siblings compete for attention through mimicking many of the ADHD behaviors they see. Parents, many times, find themselves exhausted from the one-two punch of ADHD and sibling rivalry.

Here are five ways to reverse the cycle without calling Ghostbusters:

1. Seeing Opportunity, Not Inconvenience: Unfortunately, parents of ADHD children think ideas like "Here we go again, I can't handle this." This early idea often causes unhealthy parenting. Consider reframing each behavioral problem as an opportunity to teach new skills that will calm the situation down. Parents learn these new ideas best when they practice rethinking every chance they get.

2. Words for Feelings: Children often act first, and speak later. Ghostly siblings learn that acting out, not talking, gets attention. But, parents can use emotional outbursts to teach words (not acting out) to express feelings—helping children to process feelings rather than act them out. If you see your ghost child materializing through acting out behaviors, try to figure out the emotions underneath and give words to express those feelings. When it works, you will be rewarded too, as you pay positive attention to the feeling words, and connect to your children at a deeper level.

3. See the Ghostly Child Being Good: Psychologists have long understood that acting out functions to gain attention. ADHD frequently drives parents to pay attention to impulsiveness, barely noticing other well-behaved children. Try something different: Catch your little Casper being good. When parents praise good behavior, children reduce the need to act out for attention.

4. Immediate Redirection: In today's culture, redirection often means distraction. But, true redirection teaches children to use more appropriate behaviors. When the ghost child acts out, parents effectively teach a different behavior by immediately moving to the eye level of the child and making eye contact. The redirection occurs when parent use words to give the child a different way of reacting rather than misbehaviors. For example, hitting can be replaced with: "If you're angry, tell your brother that you don't like what he did and then come find me." Parents will find redirection most effective when they do it immediately, so the learning occurs in the very situation that caused the acting out.

5. Purposeful Split-Attention: In today's world, parents barely have enough time to pay attention to anything for very long. But, when you have a child with ADHD, your other children benefit when you split your attention among all the kids. But, you must do it on purpose. If necessary, try setting a timer on your phone to alert you when to switch your attention. You'll find your skill in splitting attention improves as you practice, even if it feels artificial at first.

Like a real-life ghost buster, parents can turn their mischievous ghostly child into a well-behaved boy or girl by using simple strategies. Of course, the strategies are easy to understand, but making them a part of your life takes hard work. If you dedicate yourself to using effective parenting strategies, they become second nature.

More from Kevin D. Arnold Ph.D., ABPP
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