Q: Our 11-year-old daughter (the oldest of five) has been picking frequent fights with her two younger sisters and losing patience with them over any mistakes they make. She has certain expectations, and sometimes feels that we are not doing enough as parents to bring up our children “properly.” We’ve often told her that when the time comes, she can raise her own children as she sees fit. Meanwhile, we’re concerned that her siblings will resent her greatly, as she can be very condescending. How can we get our daughter’s behavior to change so that it is more manageable within the family?
A: Working with a bossy pre-teen is quite a challenge. When a child enters this stage of life, issues of power and control often begin to surface between her and her parents. These often intensify throughout adolescence as she struggles to find her place in society. It is common for an oldest child to test the waters within the family and assert herself in the manner described.
But being assertive need not mean being cruel or overbearing to one’s siblings. Rather, assertiveness needs to be tempered by explaining the consequences of actions and reminding the child of her responsibility as part of the family unit. Once a child’s positive behavior does emerge, it needs to be reinforced by specific verbal praise and concrete rewards — be they special privileges or time spent with a parent.
First of all, a child needs to see — and be made to understand — the consequences of her actions. During a period of calm, a parent should approach the child and explain how her negative actions and insulting comments towards her siblings are damaging to the family. The more specifically a parent can pinpoint the consequences of the adolescent’s behavior, the more effective this technique will be. Sometimes an aggressive child is not cognizant of the ramifications of her “harmless” statements. For example: An older sibling complains about how her younger sister is “so dumb and can’t do anything right.” Subsequently, the younger sister receives a low mark on a test. “I’m so dumb,” she says by way of explanation, parroting the words of her older sister which she has apparently internalized. This technique works well for an empathetic child — one who is sensitive to the needs of others.
Another general approach that often works when dealing with an overbearing child is to use the technique of “problem-solving.” Whether by means of an actual written contract or a verbal agreement, parents and children need to mutually work on given problem-solving situations. Written contracts can be very helpful, as the stipulations of a parent-child contract seem to be more binding when recorded on paper. Both parent and child need to create realistic goals and agree on rewards for positive behavior. A youngster of this age who is assertive by nature (or because of birth order) learns how to compromise and become more of a team player.
The Torah stresses “chanoch lanaar al pi darko — educate a child according to his unique way.” To deny that a child has an assertive personality (and wish it were otherwise) is not only unrealistic, but unfair to the child’s natural tendencies.
A child can feel important in a positive manner instead of a negative one. It takes effort within a family to make that shift through conscious maneuvering of a negative role into a positive one. Through techniques that enhance the positive aspects of children, an assertive older child can become an indispensable helper.