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Sibling dynamics are challenging for all families. But when one sibling has a learning and thinking difference and the other one doesn’t, things can be even tougher.

In this episode of In It, hosts Gretchen Vierstra and Rachel Bozek talk with Becca. She’s a mom of two kids, one with ADHD and one without. Becca shares how she’s finding balance in parenting kids with different needs. And how her kids interact with one another.

This is part one of a two-part series. In the next episode, we’ll get tips on managing sibling dynamics from psychologist Dr. Ari Tuckman.  

Related resources

Episode transcript

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs... 

Rachel: ...the ups and downs…

Gretchen: ...of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor with a family that's definitely in it. Today, we're talking to one mom about the challenges of balancing the different needs of your kids. When one has a learning and thinking difference and the other one doesn't. 

Gretchen: This is part one in a two-part series. In the second part, you'll hear from Ari Tuckman, a therapist who specializes in teens and adults with ADHD, and in couples therapy. Ari has some great advice for how to manage these sometimes difficult sibling relationships. 

Rachel: Today, though, we're hearing from Becca. 

Gretchen: Becca lives in Connecticut with her husband and two kids: a teenage son, and soon-to-be teenage daughter. Her son has ADHD, and at times, managing that has put a strain on the whole family. 

Rachel: Needless to say, this is just one family's story. We know that every family is different and makes different choices based on their own needs and circumstances. 

Gretchen: We also want to note that, out of respect for the privacy of Becca's children, we won't be using their names in our conversation. 

Rachel: So, hi Becca. Thanks for joining us today. It's great to meet you. 

Becca: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. 

Rachel: So, to get started in this conversation, I just want to ask you to tell us briefly about your two kids, just to kind of get a sense of who's who. Like, how old are they? What are their personalities like? What are they into? 

Becca: Sure. My son will be 16 in two and a half weeks, and he is very creative. He's a techie. He loves music. He plays the guitar, the drums. He's gone to boarding school for the past three years. This is his fourth year. He's, you know, always been very energetic. He has a big heart. He's a loving, warm kid, but he's very determined and can be... he gets set in his ways sometimes. 

My daughter is 12. She'll be 13 at the beginning of February. And now that she's almost a teenager, she's become very difficult, to say the least. She was, she was always very easy growing up. And people had told us, "Watch when she gets to the, you know, adolescent age, that's going to change." Yeah. Yeah, it did.

Gretchen: Yeah. 

Becca: So, she's very social. She's always spending time with her friends. She plays lacrosse and volleyball. She's also played soccer, basketball. She loves sports. She'll play anything. And uh, yeah, that's in a nutshell. Those are my kids. 

Rachel: Awesome. Is she really into skincare? Because I have an 11-year-old who's...

Becca: Oh, yes! 

Gretchen: And so is mine. I blame TikTok people. 

Becca: Oh, yeah. Yes, definitely. 

Gretchen: So, um, let's talk a little about your son. So, he is a learning and thinking difference, is that right? 

Becca: Correct. He has ADHD. 

Gretchen: He has ADHD. OK. So, can you tell us a little bit about that? When did you first sense that something was going on for him. 

Becca: So, up until he was about three years old, he was — I mean, he's the same kid. He's very energetic and loving, — but we noticed a change in him right before my daughter was born. And we chalked it up to him, just being nervous about me having another baby or whatever. 

And he became very hyper, inattentive, didn't follow directions. And at that age, I mean, I don't expect kids to follow directions when they're three very easily anyway. 

But we just noticed a big change and we thought, "Oh, once you know, my daughter is born, he'll go back to the way he was." And that never happened. And the impulsivity kicked in. And I'd say by the time he was five years old in kindergarten, that's when it really became noticeable to the point where we sought out a psychologist for him to go to and he was diagnosed with ADHD. Yeah, that's kind of how it started for us. 

Gretchen: OK. So, then how did, or how does, having ADHD affect him at school, at home? What do you see? 

Becca: Both, ugh, both. At school — he got by in elementary school — he would do a lot of impulsive things. Not bad. Not to hurt anyone. But, I don't know, like throwing toilet paper around in the bathroom. Or, you know, getting in trouble for that at school. Or blurting something out, writing something on the chalkboard or the smart board that he shouldn't write. Things like that. But he still did OK. Nothing major. 

And then, in middle school, it became — that's when it all really started hitting — he could not focus in class. Even sitting in the front row, he would get distracted. He would blurt things out he shouldn't. 

One of the assistant principals called me once — I got regular phone calls from the assistant principal. We were like best friends by the end of the year — but she called me once, and she was saying, "You know, I happened to be reviewing the video cameras in the hallway, and I saw him just doing somersaults down the hallway, and no one else was around. Just for fun, you know?" But that's him. 

Gretchen: That's sort of endearing. 

Becca: It is. Yeah, but like I said, he didn't do anything bad or to hurt anyone. It's just, he's impulsive. And at home, the behavior was more defiant I would say. We would ask him to do something and he would blurt out something inappropriate. Or following directions is always an issue. But he also would take things from us without asking. He would go in our closets and take things. And when we confronted him, most of the time, he would fess up. 

Again, I don't think he did these things because he wanted to be bad. I think he did them because he really couldn't control his impulses a lot of times. And the hyperactivity too. But that was easier to deal with than stealing or the impulsive issues. 

Rachel: Yeah. So, how have those challenges and those behaviors at the beginning and even over time, how has all of that impacted the rest of the family and, in particular, your daughter? 

Becca: Definitely my husband and I have had a very, very challenging time. But obviously, we're adults and we can deal with it a little bit better. My daughter has had a very difficult time with my son because, you know, she got used to him going in her room and taking things without asking, or saying things that she didn't want to hear. Arguing with her because he couldn't control himself, you know, just walking away. 

And I know kids, you know, fight on a regular or, you know, have challenges with each other on a regular basis. But I think it was more... it was harder for her because it was constant with him. Always constant battles and going in her room and taking things was always the biggest issue for her. And even though now he's making changes, she still has this image of him in her head, from 3 or 4 years ago of how he was. And that's really difficult for her now. 

Gretchen: Can you think of particular moments when your son's needs and his challenges came in direct conflict with your daughter's needs? And maybe you can give us a couple examples? 

Becca: Yeah. Overall — and at the time we didn't really pay attention to it — but overall, we've had to give most of our attention to my son because he demanded it, you know. And not necessarily good attention, unfortunately. But we had to focus on him. And our daughter didn't have any like — growing up she was just so easy — she did well in school. She was so pleasant. She used to tell me I was her best friend and she wanted to live with me forever. I mean, you know, not anymore. But that's the way it used to be. 

Rachel: Right, I get that. 

Becca: It was just so easy with her, and we never had to worry. Really. So, it's not that we didn't give her attention. We didn't have to give her the attention that we gave to my son. 

Gretchen: I'm curious now that she's a little older and now that she's a teen you said, or pre-teen?

Becca: She'll be a teen in a month and a half. 

Gretchen: Oh, boy. And this is when they, at least in my house, this is when they got real vocal. So, I'm wondering, has she said anything to you about, I don't know, feeling like, "Wow, you guys always paid attention to my brother," or does that come up at all? 

Becca: That's so interesting that you say that because just last week, she started saying, at least twice this past week I heard her say, "Well, he's your favorite. He's your favorite." I'm like "No, where are you getting this from? We love you both equally. We don't have a favorite."

And I did say to her, "Look, we've had to spend more time with our son and pay more attention to him because of the differences that he's had, you know, and growing up, you were not like that. And we didn't have to give you the kind of attention — yes, we gave you attention. Loving, well, you know, warm attention — but we didn't have to give you the kind of attention that we gave him." 

Gretchen: How did she respond when you explained that to her? 

Becca: She's like, "No, I don't believe you. Yeah, right." I mean, very like, sassy. But at least, I feel like at least I said it and I explained it as best as I could. 

Gretchen: I bet she heard you. I mean, I'm just going to speak from personal experience when I've said these little things to my kids and they go, "Yeah, yeah, whatever." Then like, weeks later, I'll hear them saying it back to somebody else and explaining the situation in a mature way of what I said when they had dismissed it before. 

Gretchen: So, she might have really heard it all and might, like, say it back later to somebody else. 

Rachel: Takes a little while to sink in. 

Becca: I hope so. Yeah, well that's encouraging. 

Gretchen: So, other than saying that her brother is your favorite, how else does she talk about her brother now? 

Becca: "Ugh, he does this. Ugh, he always does that." I mean, it's always like, "Oh, well, you know him!" And I think this gets into the fact that she still has that negative image of him in her head from the past. 

And, you know, since he's been away for most of the time, the past three and a half years at boarding school, he'll come home. So, even though he made positive changes — and my husband and I definitely noticed along the way. I mean, major wonderful changes — it was harder for our daughter to notice those things, I think, because she still has that image in her head and she's so focused on that. 

So, when he would come home, she's automatically expecting those old behaviors. And that's that's an issue. 

Rachel: So, how do you respond to that or even like, anticipate that if you kind of know that that's what's coming when he's coming home? 

Becca: Well, I've talked with her about it before, because it's come up so much. I've said "Look, you have to notice all the positive ways which he's changing and he's made such an effort. He's trying really hard. He's learned a lot of good tools that have helped him." And he's also maturing, so that plays into it. 

So, I keep reminding her of those things as best as I can. But any time, if he messes up a little bit even, like if he steps one foot in her room, she automatically shouts "Get out! Don't, don't come in. Don't touch anything." You know? Yeah, it's like, instantaneous response. So, we're still working on that.

Rachel: Yeah. As a parent, what's hardest for you about parenting these two very different kids and managing their relationship with each other? 

Becca: I think putting out the fires at home between the two of them is always the biggest. You know, they do argue still and get into tiffs and like, they don't care who they do it in front of most of the time. We were out to dinner this past summer for my dad's birthday. He's 83. My husband wasn't there, but it was my son and my daughter and my mom and my dad and me. And I made the mistake of letting them sit next to each other. And I just didn't think about it ahead of time. 

And they fought the entire — bickered — the entire time. And it was just unpleasant for everyone. So, Thanksgiving, I thought ahead of time. I said, "OK, they're not going to sit next to each other." We had our whole family at our house. My daughter sat on one side of the table, my son sat on the other, and I talked to them ahead of time. And I said, "Look, if you feel like you can't be kind to each other, just try not to talk to each other. Just keep your hands to yourself," you know? Whatever. No phones at the table. 

And actually ended up being really great. So, that was, I think the more I can talk with them ahead of time and kind of remind them of what's expected, the easier it is. But I don't always remember to do that, unfortunately. 

Rachel: I mean, I think that's such a good tip. And we write about that on Understood. Just like previewing what's going to happen, setting up the expectations and clearly going over it, can really help in those situations. 

Becca: Yes. 

Rachel: So, what about you and your husband? Are you usually on the same page about all of this when it comes to your kids? Or do you ever find yourselves taking different sides or playing different roles? 

Becca: We have very different parenting styles, which becomes challenging. Usually we are in agreement about what to do or how to parent, but our styles are different. For instance, my husband is a yes-man. So, anything my kids ask, most of the time they're going to get it. Unless, he's gotten much better at coming to me first and saying, "Hey, what do you think about this?" And I've actually gotten better in just discussing. 

So, I think that's something we've learned along the way to really come together as one unit, because the kids will see, like they used to see the differences that we had, and they would skip right over me and go right to him. And they still do sometimes, which becomes really frustrating. So, it's better now because he'll say, "Oh, let me go talk to your mom first" and we'll talk about it and figure it out together. We've had to really educate ourselves on how to best come together as a unit and parent them together. 

Rachel: What do you think it will take for their relationship to go more smoothly in the future? Or to maybe just kind of like, evolve in a really positive way? 

Becca: I think maturing is a big part of it. Especially with my son, now that he's getting older, he's really matured. And he's much, much kinder to her than she is to him. And also all the reminders, too. You know, especially with our daughter, like, keep reminding her, "He's making great strides. He's really working hard. You need to do the same. You need to be more open. You need to listen to him more calm or whatever. Change the negative opinion that you've had. You need to start seeing him in a different light."

And I think — I'm hoping — they can be friends at some point. I mean, that's probably the hope for all parents, but yeah, you know, I hope. 

Rachel: So, before we wrap up, can you tell us if there's anything that we didn't cover that you know, you think would be good for other parents to hear about or that you were hoping to talk about? 

Becca: The only thing I would say is that there were some really, really challenging times with our son, and my daughter witnessed those things. And I think it may have traumatized her a little bit. And you know, those are issues we still have to work through. It's a work in progress. She gets therapy now too, which is very helpful. So, I think therapy can be very, very helpful, especially for a non-neurodiverse child who has a sibling who is. 

And I think we don't — at the time you know, like I said before, we didn't realize when our daughter was growing up — we thought everything was great. And actually, my son's therapist would always ask, "How's your daughter doing?" And we'd say, "Fine. She seems fine." But now that she's getting older, I think it's playing out in different ways. 

And you know, what happened in the past, I think is now — not haunt. I don't want to say haunting her — but she's dealing with it. And I think, to be aware as much as possible and, you know, get therapy if the kids need it. That's really important. 

Rachel: Yeah. And I think that is actually such a great point for families who may have a similar kind of parallel situation where, it isn't just the child with a diagnosis. It is also, you know, it's everybody. That might be the parents. It's like, therapy is, therapy is for everybody. 

Becca: Yes it is. And you don't always, like I said, you don't always realize it at the time. And it can later on, it could play out in different ways. 

Gretchen: Well, thank you so much for talking with us today Becca.

Becca: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. Yeah, no, it's a pleasure. I appreciate it. 

Gretchen: So, Rachel, looking back, is there anything you want to add? Any thoughts you have about our conversation with Becca? 

Rachel: Well, yes. I do want to acknowledge that despite my hearty endorsement of "Therapy for all", I know that for some, that's simply not an option. It may be too expensive or too hard to access, for whatever reason. But as I think listeners will hear when we talk to Ari in our next episode, parents and caregivers themselves can start some really important and healing conversations with their kids about some of these challenges. 

Gretchen: I totally agree with that. And something else I've been thinking about has to do with Becca expressing some regret that she may have overlooked her daughter's struggles early on because she always seemed to be doing just fine. And I think that's not uncommon. That's really understandable, especially when you have another kid whose challenges may be right there in front of your face. 

It might be really easy to miss what's going on with the other kid. And in that instance, I just really hope parents give themselves some grace, because it's never too late to go back and work on repairing that. 

Rachel: Yeah, and I think that no matter when you get a diagnosis or you learn more about what's going on with your kid, you always feel like you could have figured that out earlier. And that's not fair to yourself. 

Gretchen: Is not. 

Rachel: Well, as we said at the top of the episode, Becca's story is part one of a two-part series. So, tune in to our next episode where we'll hear from psychologist, Ari Tuckman, talking about family dynamics and some of the different ways neurotypical kids may respond to having a sibling with a learning and thinking difference. Here's a little bit of that conversation:

Ari: You know, I think for other siblings, you know, it may kind of go a bit of a different way, which is "Mom and Dad are already having such a hard time with that one. I need to be the good one." You know, so they may kind of be quiet and sort of float under the radar, until maybe they don't. 

Rachel: Don't miss it. 

Gretchen: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network. 

Rachel: This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at init@understood.org to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you. 

Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we've covered today, check out our show notes. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Rachel: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission. 

Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Ilana Millner is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Ericco wrote our theme music. 

Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.

Gretchen: And thanks for always being "in it" with us.

Hosts

  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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