My thirteen-year-old daughter has been nasty to her younger brother recently. She snaps at him, makes fun of him, provokes him, and then claims we’re being unfair when we intervene. I can’t stand living in a house with so much tension. I never know if the “sweet girl” or the “rude teen” is going to show up each day. How can I get her to see that she’s behaving miserably?
The short answer is, don’t intervene. I know it seems like a total injustice against your son not to interfere, but what I mean is, don’t intervene obviously and definitely not right away.
Your daughter may be acting up for lots of reasons. Usually, when someone has a radical shift in behavior like you’re describing, she’s holding in tension from somewhere else and letting it out in the safest place possible. Lucky you. Your daughter may be lashing out because she’s hurt. Punishing her may stop her behavior in the short term, but it won’t fix the root of her problems. Or maybe she just likes pushing her brother’s buttons. In that case, he needs to learn how to react in a way that doesn’t give her what she wants.
So, let’s use this opportunity to coach your son on how to blow off someone who is being a jerk. These skills will empower him to handle these situations in school and, hopefully, he won’t need you (as much) to intervene with his sister. Take him aside, perhaps for ice cream or on a special walk together, and let him know you’ve noticed how his sister is behaving. Explain to your son that his sister’s behavior is her problem, not his. He’ll probably ask (demand) that you do something. “Punish her, already!” Maybe he won’t care, but maybe he’ll feel better knowing this is her problem, not his.
Next, coach him on ways he can respond that will show his sister he is unflustered by her absurd behavior, sort of the little brother version of “Botox Brow.”
- Smile and leave
- Agree with her (how disarming!)
- Ask her politely if she’s okay
Any of these may initially cause your daughter to scream with frustration because she isn’t getting the reaction she wanted. But after a few times, she’ll learn that her brother is not the easy target she once thought. If your son can stick with a neutral response, he’ll get paid off tremendously when his sister backs off for good. These are the same skills that can work with bullies, mean friends, and other adversaries.
On the other hand, let’s suppose her behavior is indicative of something bigger. If she’s lashing out because in another area of her life (friends, school, maybe even parents) she feels powerless and angry, she needs more than stonewalling. She could use a little empathy, too.
Once the heat of the moment dissipates, approach your daughter to talk about her behavior. Rather than being accusatory, try a softer start, something like, “I’m sorry you got upset with your brother. You seemed so upset. It made me wonder if there’s something else bothering you? I’m here to listen if you ever want to talk about friends, school, family, or anything else on your mind. Sometimes it helps just to get it off your chest. I love you.”
She may or may not be ready to talk right then and there. But she’ll remember that you’re ready to listen. She’ll also know you’re keeping an eye on her behavior.
If all else fails and her nasty behavior is unbearable, you can move on to step three. Antisocial behavior gets antisocial consequences. You can approach her quietly and privately to say something like this:
I’ve noticed you’re still being disrespectful to your brother, and I’ve watched him try to take it without turning it into a fight. I’ve asked you if something bigger is bothering you and I’m still here anytime to listen when you want to talk. But it’s becoming unbearable to listen to you being so rude. I’d love for you to join us when you can talk respectfully to everyone in this family. Until then, you can spend time in your room alone with a good book.
Take away technology and any special events she was planning on. When she’s ready to talk respectfully, you will be happy to give those back. The key is to sound calm and pleasant as you say all of this so she can get to calm and pleasant herself.
A note on sibling rivalry: It’s not your job to ensure that your kids like each other. It’s not even your job to make sure they get along. That’s their job. The more neutral you are, without making any comparisons between them, the more likely they won’t make comparisons between themselves. That will naturally lead to a more peaceful, hopefully even fun, sibling relationship.
- Separate them. Literally put them in neutral corners and separate rooms.
- Wait before reacting to sibling arguments.
- Approach kids separately and privately about behavior related to siblings.
- Try very hard not to make comparisons between siblings.
- Coach your kids to respond to provocative siblings without escalating drama.
- Express empathy for the child who is angry as well as the child who is being targeted.
- React to antisocial behavior with antisocial consequences.