The brothers and sisters of children with ADHD are sometimes referred to as “ghost siblings.”
Ghost siblings often seem invisible in comparison to the other child whose behaviour can include impulsivity, strong emotional expression, and hyperactivity.
My ghost child is constantly getting the short end of the stick. Part of this is typical sibling second child stuff. Being the youngest/second child means she hasn’t been subjected to as much hovering and hyper-parenting as her older sister. What might seem like a lack of attention is actually an attempt to balance out the excessive over-management of kid number one.
But I can’t chalk it all up to birth order. By the time my ghost child needs me, I’ve been arguing with and redirecting her sister for so long I’ve got nothing left for her. By the time she pushes back, as seven-year-olds do, I am so exhausted from being pushed back on by my other child that my reaction can be way out of proportion.
My ghost child is my easy child, so why is doing right by her so difficult?
Having a ghost child is the unintended consequence of parenting one child with ADHD and one without. I defer to my ADHD child out of self-preservation, exhaustion and because she needs or requires my undivided attention so much of the time.
My ghost child asks for so little and that’s usually what she gets.
If we have two items that are slightly different, I let my oldest choose first because she’ll make more of a fuss if she doesn’t get the one she wants. When it’s time to pick a restaurant or a movie, she often gets the final say here too because she’s the one who will argue the hardest if she doesn’t get her way.
Taking the path of least resistance, while tempting and understandable some days, is not acceptable as a long-term parenting strategy.
What are the long-term impacts of being part of a family where your needs almost always come second, where you learn to demand less of your parents’ time and attention because you know that’s what you’ll get no matter what?
Is my ghost child confused because her sister seems to get away with so much more? Does she wonder why she’s expected to listen the first time when her sister gets three, sometimes four reminders to put on her shoes?
Parenting experts say that kids usually act out as a way to communicate their needs. If they’re not getting something, like attention or affection, children can respond in ways that leave their parents no choice but to drop everything and focus on them. When my ghost girl acts out, I mentally rewind and consider all the ways I’ve shortchanged her that day. But while I’m now forced to focus on her in that moment, I’m also thinking about the fact that reactionary, guilt-based parenting isn’t great for anyone. Rather than redirecting my ghost child from behaviour caused by a lack of attention wouldn’t it be better to proactively seek out time with her?
Spending quality time with your child is Parenting 101. I know this and yet it’s become difficult for me to do, not because I don’t want to but because I simply have nothing left. And as the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. So if my squeaky wheel and I have had a particularly difficult day and I have to choose between recharging my batteries behind a locked door and playing Barbies with my ghost child, the locked door wins every time.
But this is not the kind of parent I want to be.
When I was young, foolish, childless and well rested I imagined my future parenting style would be more natural and unstructured than reality now dictates. I imagined my parenting decisions coming naturally and without much angst because I would always know in my gut what the right decision was. Everything, I thought, would unfold in a very organic, Namaste type of way.
But here on planet earth, the reality is that I need to consciously focus on one child the same way I chunk out time for email or a workout. Sometimes this means setting a mental or actual timer or keeping an eye on the clock so I can go to sleep knowing they each got my undivided attention for X amount of time. I resisted this idea when I first heard it because it seemed too structured and too artificial, but it works. Rather than wait for a sad face, snarky remark or meltdown from my little ghost, I’m finding ways and time to focus on her every day.
What’s also working for us is having me initiate play instead of waiting to be asked. Both my kids and I feel great when this happens and I think it’s helping us reduce the “look at me” negative behaviour, especially when I’m able to stay present and focused on her no matter how many other people, things, and chores are gnawing at my brain. These moments belong to her and I protect them as fiercely as I do my own me-time rituals.
The great thing about time and attention is that it costs nothing and is universally desired by all kids. The bad thing about time and attention is that it’s not always easy to come by in our very busy and distracted world. But I’m finally learning that carving this out for each of my kids doesn’t have to mean a grand gesture or a special outing or occasion. They’re just as happy to have me lying beside them on the floor, playing Barbies or building Minecraft ….. stuff, neither of which I particularly enjoy, but that’s a problem for another day.
Managing this family dynamic is a work in progress and probably always will be. But I flat-out refuse to raise a ghost. She deserves better and I know I’m capable of giving her more. I will give her more.