The Ties That Bite: Sibling Battles

My mother has a favorite story she likes to tell. According to her, when she was in the thick of raising my sisters and me, she often experienced a phenomenon wherein she’d pull up to a friend’s house with all three ragamuffin girls in her banged-up dark blue pinto station wagon and the friend would promptly shut the door and pretend not to be home. Each and every time. Even if there were cars in the driveway and a tv blaring int he background. The friend would refuse to answer the door.

For at least 30 of my 35 years, I’ve rolled my eyes at the pure hyperbole evidenced in this story. But then I gave birth to a sibling for my ADHD son Javier (11) and my world view went spinning in a different direction. Not only are siblings each other’s favorite torture subject, but my particular set of siblings have a great big ADHD umbrella shading their every move. He can’t let anything go and overreacts about everything (aka, no impulse control, inability to react appropriate to stimuli). Bella (4) is neuro-typical and smart as a whip, meaning she quickly spots his weaknesses and exploits for the pure joy of watching him explode. I am the peacemaker, trying to keep them away from each other because neither has done anything “wrong.”

At first their interactions were subtly problematic. My boy would scream bloody murder after his little sister crawled over to his Lego empire to destroy it and gnaw on the minifigs after watching him slave over it. She’d scream when he’d jump in to answer any question we asked her, which rarely veered from the elementary, “Can you show me the green fork?” or “What sound does a cow make?”

That was then. Over the past year or so, the sibling infighting has reached new heights. For instance, recently, Javi was passing Bella on the stairwell and his backpack grazed her face. She immediately set to screaming her head off about him “hurting” her “on purpose.” (Those words are in quotes because I am not at all convinced she was hurt and I also don’t believe he was trying to hit her with his bag. If he was trying to, he would’ve done a better job of “hurting” her. Ehem.)

I quickly sent them separate ways, but he was already on the emotional spiral of worry about getting in trouble. She could smell his fear and so she said, in a very clear little voice, from her room, “Purpose” … and all hell broke loose. He was screaming about how it was an accident and she was stupid and he was going to kick her face in. She stayed in her room, quietly stringing beads onto plastic cord, and made up a song that went, “Purpose purpose purpose.” He screamed some more, wailed about how he hated her, and then threw himself into his bedroom wall so hard the house shook.

The next step is always calming Javi down while trying to distract Bella. Because she’s being an asshole, but he has to learn to let things go. Because she’s provoking him, but only because he’s treating the word “purpose” like hot acid on his skin. So my strategy is to calm him down by talking him through it. Using words and deep breathing to bring into focus what’s setting him off: Fear. Fear that he’ll get in trouble. Fear that we’ll believe her tried to hurt her on purpose.

But it doesn’t work because it never does and so she’s in trouble for instigating and must be in her room with the door shut. He’s in isolation to calm down in his room with the door shut. Only she keeps opening and shutting her door and he can hear her and he wants her in trouble. So he yells down the stairs to tattle and she yells down behind him to remind me that she’s just opening her door. And then he starts copying her words using a mocking voice and now she’s angry and screaming ON PURPOSE! and he’s banging his head against the wall.

And so I understand. I understand how my mother felt when her friends pretended to be anywhere but where her children were. I understand why she felt the need to tell that story for years and years after the last time it happened. I understand that she carries scars in her brain from where it began to melt from the logistical clusterfudge that was her children’s relationships with each other.

I have no solutions. Spank them both? Hasn’t worked. Create kindness rules? Hasn’t worked. Encase both of their rooms in sound-proof glass? Can’t afford it.

What else ya got?

How do you manage your ADHD and non-ADHD siblings’ interactions? How do you stand being in the same 50 foot space as them? And how is that a 4 year old has so much power over an 11 year old’s emotions?

Kelly Quinones Miller is the mother of an adopted son with ADHD, inattentive type. She works from home as a freelance writer and designer while trying to teach her son the strategies and skills he’ll need to succeed. Kelly blogs about family issues, casual environmentalism, backyard chickens, and more at The Miller Mix.

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impulse control, siblings ·

About the author

Kelly Quinones Miller is the mother of an adopted son with ADHD, inattentive type. She works from home as a freelance writer and designer while trying to teach her son the strategies and skills he'll need to succeed. Kelly blogs about family issues, casual environmentalism, backyard chickens, and more at The Miller Mix.


  1. Erika says:

    Honestly, your daughter sounds like she is reacting from experience. And you are calling her an asshole? I think you need to step back and re-evaluate. If I read their ages correctly, he is 11 and she is 4. Regardless of any conditions etc. He needs to apologise and acknowledge she felt it is on purpose. He can then explain it wasn’t but he is still sorry. Reactions come from experience.

  2. Krista says:

    I’m so relieved to read this. My oldest son is 12 and has been diagnosed with ADHD. I have two younger children; a son aged 10 and a daughter aged 9. I feel like you’ve been in my house and wrote that from my experiences! And can I just say that my
    middle child is often an asshole! He knows just how to push my older child’s buttons and he purposely does anything to get under his skin. Thank you for being so honest. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only person out there dealing with this on a daily basis. Everyone’s situation is different but until you’re in the situation; most people just don’t understand.

  3. Jasmine says:

    Oh my goodness. This is my life. Everyday. My oldest is 9 y/o with a combination type ADHD and my youngest is 4 y/o, neurotypical and so smart. This is their constant coexistence and I am trying like heck to just ride it out without them driving me to the looney bin or me traumatizing them. I also appreciate your honesty and completely get where you are coming from.


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