Teasing Among Siblings

Q: My oldest daughter (of several, bli ayin hara,) is 12, and is followed by a 9-1/2-year-old girl. My second daughter greatly desires the company of her older sister, who often ignores her and spends time reading books. The older one can also be quite bossy towards the younger, and they often criticize one another. I have tried to find ways for them to improve their relationship, but my oldest daughter seems to be uninterested in changing anything. She feels that the games her young sister wants to play are “too babyish” and would rather spend time by herself. What’s even worse is that the next (third) sister in line is now receiving the same treatment from my second daughter! The 9-year-old tells her 7-year-old sister that she doesn’t want to play with her, either, because her games are “too babyish.” It’s becoming a pattern of each sister looking down at the next one. I’ve tried to use prizes to motivate my daughters to improve cooperation, but have met with limited success.

Contrary to her relationship with her sister, my oldest daughter is very sociable with her classmates and doesn’t isolate herself from them.

I spoke to my oldest daughter and found out that there is a reason she is so upset with her sister. A medical condition causes her to occasionally make noises in her sleep and her younger sister mimics these sounds. My oldest daughter had tears in her eyes when she spoke to me about this.

I don’t know the best way of confronting her sister. I’m afraid she’ll just get defensive and not hear the message I’m trying to get across.

A: Most sibling conflicts are cyclical, without beginning or end. Though your second daughter’s teasing is inexcusable, her older sister’s bossiness and criticism could have been a large contributing factor to her insensitive mimicry.

When confronting your second daughter, use the “cushion method.” First, point out that most sibling conflicts do not have one single cause, and acknowledge your awareness that her oldest sister’s comments and actions are sometimes difficult to deal with. (This is the empathetic part of your message.) The actual message (which is not so cushioned) is that her intrinsically cruel mimicking of her sister’s medical condition is extremely painful to her and causes the older sister to stay away from and ignore the younger. Conclude with a second “cushion” — an encouraging statement of confidence in her abilities to improve the situation.

It is important to break the existing pattern and teach siblings to be more tolerant of each other and willing to compromise. Your second daughter needs to apologize to her older sister — with sincerity, not mere lip service. At that point, attempting to problem-solve other issues remaining between them will become a more workable task. Once hostilities decrease (due to better understanding of the issues and ways to resolve them), motivational rewards will be more effective in improving family cooperation. Offer verbal praise when you notice your children working to improve this character trait.

Teasing is often a way of “getting back” at a family member. Stopping the cycle of continual criticism and teasing is an essential ingredient to family harmony.