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In this episode of In It, hosts Gretchen Vierstra and Rachel Bozek talk with Dr. Ari Tuckman, a psychologist who works with families and couples. He shares tips for finding balance in parenting kids when one has a learning or thinking difference. And he talks about the importance of the idea that “fair doesn’t always mean equal.”

This is part two of a two-part series. In part one, we talked to Becca, a mom of two raising one child with ADHD and one without.

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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 with psychologist Ari Tuckman about siblings and, more specifically, some of the dynamics that can arise in families where there's a mix of kids who have learning and thinking differences and kids who don't. 

Gretchen: This is the second part in a two-part series. In the first part, we heard from Becca, a mom raising a 15-year-old son who has ADHD and who's struggled a lot with impulsivity. 

Rachel: And a 13-year-old daughter who sometimes bore the brunt of that impulsivity. Here's a short clip from that conversation. 

Becca: 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.

Gretchen: If you haven't listened to our conversation with Becca, we hope you'll go check it out. But on today's episode, we're hearing from Ari. 

Rachel: Ari Tuckman is a therapist based in Westchester, Pennsylvania, who specializes in teens and adults with ADHD and in couples therapy. We wanted to get some insight and advice from him about how parents and caregivers can balance the needs of all their kids, even if some of those needs are more glaring than others. 

Gretchen: We hope you find this as helpful as we did. 

Gretchen: So, Ari. Welcome to the podcast. 

Ari: It is great to be here. 

Gretchen: As you probably know, we talk a lot on the show about the challenges of being a kid with a learning and thinking difference. Or we talk about the challenges of being a parent or a caregiver of a child with a learning and thinking difference. But we really haven't talked about siblings and how siblings and the sibling relationship fits into the whole equation. So, what do we know about how siblings impact one another's psychological development? Or, to put it another way, do siblings matter? 

Ari: I think they absolutely do. I mean, they just do, for all the obvious reasons. But I think, also siblings can kind of magnify certain dynamics. Siblings often call it as they see it. Doesn't mean they're right, but they're probably not shy or quiet about it, I'm going to guess in most cases. So you know, there's certainly that part of it too in that, it then creates, obviously, a situation where the parents then are dealing with not just whatever's going on with one kid, but also the ripples that that plays out with other kids. 

Rachel: So, what are some of the stress points that you've seen come up for siblings where, say, one is neurotypical and the other one has a learning or thinking difference? 

Ari: I think it can play out in a lot of ways. I mean, sometimes, you know, it sort of feels like for the neurotypical sibling, you know, they're angry at the sibling who's demanding more attention. And especially if it's a younger sibling, I think there's already that. But even if it's an older sibling, right. Angry that, you know, "He or she gets so much more of your time and energy and you're taking them to therapy appointments or doctor appointments." 

Or you know, "You sit with them to do homework." Or "Wait a second, why do you give them a candy bar to finish their homework? I do my homework all the time and I don't get anything." So, it can really sort of increase that feeling of anger. You know, I think for other siblings, 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. 

Gretchen: Yeah. So, what about the kid in the family who has the learning and thinking difference? Is there sometimes some envy or resentment towards the other sibling who may seem to have everything come easier to them? 

Ari: Sure, absolutely. You know, "Why did I have to go to therapy?" Or "Why do I need a tutor? Or "You don't sit with her to do homework. Why do you have to sit with me to do homework?" So, it can feel like, very dubious honor all that extra parental attention. So, it's kind of ironic. Like the kid with learning difference doesn't want the extra attention and the kid without the learning difference is like, "Hey, why did they get all that attention?" And then the parents are like, feel like they're getting screwed both ways. 

But yeah, I mean, it can definitely feel unfair that way. Like, you know, "He gets to do sleepovers." Or "When he was in fifth grade, he got to do sleepovers, why can't I do sleepovers?" Or "Why can't I walk around town with my friends?" You know, so there's that part of it, too. 

And I think it's that, you know, as much as adults we can say, "Look, honey, fair does not always mean equal," right? And we can understand that, at least in the abstract. But, you know, when you're a kid feeling like you're getting the short end of the stick, that is a tough sell to really sort of believe that. 

Gretchen: I want to go back to your fairness topic between siblings, because I feel like this affects all families. And I've heard some examples — my kids are getting towards the driving age and I've heard kids talk about, or I've heard families talk about — you know, one kid in the house has ADHD. They're like, "No, no, no, no, no, that's not happening right away. We've got to delay this. They're not going to be ready." Whereas the other sibling, "Oh yeah. Nope, sign them up! 15 and a half, time to do, you know, driver's Ed." 

How do parents talk about that with their kids so that there's not the sense of like "This is a huge injustice. They get to drive before I do." 

Ari: This is, yeah. I think this and a million other, like we are incredibly attuned to fairness. You know, if you cut a cookie in half, that kid will see, "Wait a second. I got 49% of that cookie." 

Gretchen: Totally!

Ari: Right? So, if half a cookie is, you know, if what fraction of half of a cookie you received is enough to generate that, like, "Wait a second, I'm getting ripped off here." Like, something as big as "Sorry honey, I don't think you're ready to drive." Like, you might as well say "I'm going to cut your legs off." So, it is a big, big deal. And, you know, for some things, it's not like it doesn't matter that much, like whatever. But something like driving, that matters a lot. Like, people can die, you know. This is incredibly serious. 

So, you know, as much as I don't want you to feel bad then I'm going to tell you "Sorry, I don't think you're ready to drive yet. I also don't want you to, you know, run into some big, big problems here." So, you know, so I think it again comes back to that "Fair is not always equal." And that it's about "I need you to show me that you're a safe driver." 

So like, here in Pennsylvania, I think for the first six months of having a license, you can only have one other kid — unless you're related to them — in the car. Because having four of your friends yelling and doing stupid things you know, isn't conducive to safe driving. If this is a kid with ADHD, if they're taking medication, are they actually on their medication while they're driving? Meaning, they're not driving home at 10:00 at night. 

Because, you know, medication does reduce traffic accidents when you have ADHD, like it just does. So, you know, like these are all the factors to consider. And sometimes as a parent, we just need to hold the hard line that the kid hates and we don't feel great about either. But it beats the alternative. 

Gretchen: Right. You know, it's a hard conversation. And would you, talk to them separately? and then like have a family meeting about it? or like, would you just say like, how would you even do this? 

Ari: I do think, yeah, you start out with a separate conversation. But I think also you don't wait until the ride to the DMV for the driver's test to sort of spring it on them. You know, this is a conversation that begins long before that. And I would hope, also, isn't the very first time this concept is being brought up. 

You know, like, as soon as this kid gets a permit or maybe even before they get a permit, we have this conversation of like, "Look, I want you to be able to drive. That's a good thing. It's important for you. So, let's talk about how you can show us that you're a safe driver." So they have time to actually do something about it. Not, you know, the die has been cast and now I'm informing you of your fate. 

Rachel: And I think just the idea of like "This isn't a punishment. It's just the reality of, you know, what's going on here, and how your brain works." 

Ari: Yeah. I think the whole "fairness" thing it is nuanced. It is not black and white. And I don't know, I'll sort of use this example: you know, if one of your kids was gluten intolerant, that's just a bad roll of the genetic dice. But like, "Sorry, man, you can't have cookies. I know your sister over there is scarfing them down, but it's not that I don't want you to have them. It's like you will feel terrible if you do. This isn't my choice, I'm not making it. This just is. I'm just sort of delivering the bad news. Like, sorry, you can't have a bunch of cookies right now." 

And it's sort of the same thing in terms of ADHD or whatever, it is that you know, it's about, "For you. What do we need to do for you to be successful? Or for you to be happy? Or to get done this stuff you need to get done? And, you know, in these kinds of things, what it means is you're going to need more oversight and help, for other things, maybe not. And for your sibling, it’s you know, it might be a different sort of plus and minus, but like, this is kind of where we're at right now." 

Rachel: This is all really great. And I think important to acknowledge, like how we are making sure that the child with ADHD is aware — like what we were saying — this is not a bad thing, this is not a punishment. Like this is just how it is. But what about the flip side? How can a parent make sure that the other child feels seen and supported too? Like in those other scenarios where they could be kind of getting the short end of the stick, whatever that may be. 

Ari: I think some of it is kind of talking to them and just sort of acknowledging it, right? Just sort of calling a spade a spade. You're not revealing a secret here, they already know it. You know, to say like, "Look, I know your brother or your sister take up a lot of our time." Or "I know they do things that are really kind of annoying and not fair. So, I'm not saying any of that is OK. It just sort of, it is what it is. I know that this has an effect on you, and that sometimes you get the short end of the stick. 

So, I want you to be able to talk to me and Mom or whoever, about if something is a problem. I want you to say something. Right. I don't want you to feel like you always need to kind of come second, even though your sibling always sort of gets there first or too often gets there first." 

Rachel: So, you mentioned therapy, and I thought it was really kind of an important point to acknowledge therapy for the neurotypical sibling. Can you talk a little bit about how much of a consideration that should be, if you think it should be one? 

Ari: I think it's definitely something to think about. And look, as parents, we've got enough already that we're sort of keeping an eye out for, so I don't want to give you one more thing to stress out about. But I think to have a little bit of an eye on that other sibling or two — you know, whatever number of kids you have — just so that they, again, don't sort of float under the radar. And it might be that, you know, if you're taking your kiddo who has some sort of learning difference to therapy, it might be that it's helpful to bring the sibling in. 

Either as "Let's do like a one off," you know, where the sibling and the parents meet with the therapist. And like, "Let's talk about what it's like for you. Let's get your perspective on what's going on here, because that's going to make me a more effective therapist with your sibling," You know? So, it's kind of like a guest-starring role, as some people might call it. There's some therapists who would draw a line and say like, "Oh, no, I have a designated client. I couldn't possibly meet with a sibling." 

And I do get that, but I think also, I don't know, I feel like really if you're seeing kids or teens, you're doing family therapy anyway. Or perhaps have the more neurotypical sibling come along and do a joint session with the kid who's got some sort of learning difference, and to kind of talk through. And some of it, it's for the therapist to sort of explain to that neurotypical sibling, like, "Here's the deal, this is how this works, you know, what do you think of it? You know, what's it like for you?" So, it's not exactly therapy for that neurotypical sibling, but it's sort of informing them and educating them a little bit. 

Rachel: Yeah. And that may even ultimately reveal whether the neurotypical child maybe should also get their own therapist or, like, have their own kind of separate appointments. 

Ari: You know, I think as a therapist, it's helpful sometimes to hear either some stuff like, you know, "My brother is always coming in my room. He comes in, he takes my stuff. Like, you took my charger the other day. He's always taking my charger. He doesn't respect." Like, you know, and that's a big thing. You know, like there's a lot of hatred brewing there. And the brother's not going to mention it. "Hey, doc, by the way, did I mention how I'm constantly disrespecting my sister and her stuff? Oh, I didn't mention that?" 

But it's also helpful sometimes — not ratting anybody out — but you know, for that sister in this case, to say, like "Yeah, here's the deal, Mom and Dad, they don't do anything about it. Like, I tell them and they're like, 'Yeah, I know, I'll deal with it'. They don't. They don't freaking deal with it." Now, obviously you take everything with a grain of salt, but that could be revealing of, you know, what is happening or not happening here. 

Rachel: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And the thing is, parents are only human and there are only so many hours in a day. So, what do you say to the parent who is already struggling and just to get through the day and, you know, help the child who does require a little bit more time and attention and energy? Now they're worried that they're failing the other kid, like, what do you say to that parent if they're just kind of, like, out of juice? 

Ari: Yeah. No, I totally get it. So, I think the first thing I would say is keep learning what you can do. Right? Which is kind of why you're on this podcast anyway, right? You're listening because you're the kind of parents who are trying to figure out what you can do. So, you know, there's lots of great resources out there. You know, some stuff from Understood, stuff from, you know, CHADD and other good organizations. There's locals, other families, and parents that you know, right? 

So, have a good support network, and don't feel like you're alone, because you are not. So, this is the sort of "change what you can" side. The other side is more the "accept" side, you know, which we all do in life. Like, this is sort of what it is, right? We're going to adjust some of our expectations. We're going to be smart about the situations we put ourselves into. You know, so things like, you know, I use the example of like "You got to get your homework done." 

I mean, you do, but also I'm not going to fight to the death on every assignment, like some things, whatever. Or your room's a mess. Yeah, OK. I got bigger fish to fry. I'm not getting into it. You know, so there's that part of it as well, where we're making wise, considered decisions about what battles to fight and what battles to let go. Rather than overwhelmed reactive decisions in the moment. 

Gretchen: I want to get back a little bit to our story with Becca and her two kids. Because her situation, something that might be common for other families in that, she was sharing, her daughter — the child without ADHD — seemed to be like, happy and easygoing and like, taking up less time and seemed to be OK with it. But now that her daughter is getting towards the teen years, it seems like she's been holding in a lot of the anger and resentment and maybe even some fear. 

So, as parents, what do we do if we think like "Oh, she's taken care of, she's OK." Like, how do we look for the cues that maybe that's not the case? 

Ari: Yeah, I think it's a really good question. So, I think some of it's a little bit of reading between the lines. Or like, you know what am I not hearing what seems to not be happening. So, perhaps I mean — this is always easy to Monday-morning quarterback — but, could this mom have noticed like, "You know what? She doesn't really ask for a lot. Or she often says 'OK that's fine.' You know, maybe she needs to be a little bit more assertive. 

Or maybe I need to check in with her more to see how she is doing." But you know, honestly, it's way easier to notice the things that are happening and a million times harder to notice what is not happening. But it's also just having that conversation, you know, just now and then sort of checking in of like, "How are you doing? How are we doing? And again, to speak the truth. 

Like look, "I know your brother's hard, I know that has a big effect on you. So, how are you doing with that." Yeah, I think it may also be — and I'm going to sort of come at it from the other side. 

And I certainly don't want to like, question anybody's experience — but, you know, it's also possible that the daughter is just being kind of a sassy teenager and she's just saying like, "Oh, and, um, yeah, I'm so surly because of my brother. Uh, yeah. That's it." Right? Like, I'm sure her brother has given her a mountain of material to be surly about, but she also might have just been surly anyway, so... 

Gretchen: Yeah, it's hard to untangle, right? The just teens versus everything else. 

Ari: But I think, you know, the advice I would then give the mom in this case is, you know, certainly to validate it. Say like, "Look, I get it. I understand, you know, why for you, this is what it was like." I think there's a fine line between explaining and defending or justifying. And obviously, if she's 13, you're going to have a different discussion than if she's 20 or 30 or has her own kids, right?

But, you know, to sort of balance that thing, if "I acknowledge this is what it was like for you." Also like, "Here's the best we did, here are the things I would have done different. Here are the things now I know that I wish I knew then, or I sort of knew it, but I didn't really believe it or buy into it or something." Right? So, it's that sort of like admitting the things that you might have done differently and the impact that it had. But to share the mostly your intent was there, even if the execution wasn't perfect. 

Gretchen: Yeah. I feel sometimes as a parent like "The Wizard of Oz." Like I'm behind the curtain trying to make everything look beautiful. But then sometimes I pop out and I'm like, "You know what? Like, I messed up, and guess what? You're going to mess up too, later. And we just, we just do. Like, no one's perfect." But it's hard to sometimes remember that, as a parent like that. Yeah. Your parents did things you didn't like. We do things we don't like now, and our kids will later on do things they don't like. 

Ari: Yeah, but that's fine. I mean, that I think that is in and of itself an important life lesson. You don't have to be perfect and you won't be. 

Rachel: Yeah. This has all been super interesting and helpful. But we — I'm sure haven't gotten to everything — so, is there any other advice or just thoughts you have for families who are raising kids who are wired differently from one another? 

Ari: Like, you know, I just first want to say this. This is such an important topic and nobody talks about it. So, you know, like one of the things I do is I'm one of the chairs of the big ADHD conference. I want to say, in the last five years we've had, I remember one, I'll be generous and say two presentations on siblings. I don't know why people aren't talking about it. 

So, I think it's awesome that you guys are talking about it. So, I think it's just sort of a thing of like, you know, I'll just repeat what I said, like, don't go it alone. Seek out your resources, seek out your supports. Don't reinvent the wheel, right? Other people have smart ideas, take them. And, you know, to sort of acknowledge what's in the room rather than hoping or pretending it isn't there. 

Gretchen: Ari, this has been a real pleasure to speak with you today about this topic. 

Rachel: Yeah. Thank you so much for this. 

Ari: Yeah, this has been super fun. I'm so glad we did this. 

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 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 Errico 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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