Encouraging Positive Changes

Q: Our family consists mainly of girls, ages 6-19, with strong personalities that differ from each other. Unfortunately, my 10-year-old daughter (who, I admit, has some annoying habits) is being picked on by several of her older and younger sisters. She doesn’t take showers often enough (despite her sisters’ entreaties) and lets her frizzy hair remain very frizzy (when certain actions can help this situation). Her roommate complains about how disorganized she is and that she is “spaced-out.”

The 10-year-old feels that everyone is telling her what to do and making her feel that she is never “good enough.” She has many friends in school and in our neighborhood, as she is pleasant and sensitive to others, yet her self-esteem has been negatively affected at home.

Her behavior can be quite exasperating, and she often seems depressed.

How should we respond to this? My husband is very exacting in many things, and this daughter’s personality is difficult for him to appreciate, as well.

A: When a child’s personality differs greatly from those of her parents, the issue of chinuch becomes a greater challenge. For sisters who have a lot of healthy pride that they are “put together” (both in physical appearance and social interactions), having a sister who appears “different” becomes an embarrassment.

Certain external factors of a person cannot be changed. However, the issues you mention are areas that your daughter is able to — and needs to — improve in order to be an appropriate member of society.

As it is not the role of siblings to parent their sister, you must emphasize to them that they may not be “bossy” towards her. In any case, excessive criticism from parents or siblings is only a temporary (if even that) motivation for improvement.

Problem-solving each issue separately, at different times, reduces an avalanche of criticism to a series of snowballs. If needs are discussed by a parent in a nonjudgmental, calm tone of voice (and not at the actual time of the “offense,” like when she is refusing to take a shower), there is more of a chance of arriving at creative solutions to these issues. Try to avoid using the words “I” or “you” as much as possible. Humor can be used (if the person is not hurt by it).

A parent should utilize the “cushion method”: Start with a positive comment, state the issue at hand, and then end with a supportive statement. An example might be as follows: “We really appreciate how you clean up your room so quickly on Erev Shabbos. Things seem to get overwhelming during the week, though, and we need to find a way to get this room in order on school days. I know we’ll think of some strategy.”

A parent can discuss the issue and try to explain why it is important to change this particular habit. Sometimes children’s fears are stopping them from normative behaviors (“If I take a shower, then…” or, “If I try to un-frizz my hair, then…”), and this needs to be addressed. Some children’s low self-esteem stops them from putting energy into necessary daily maintenance activities. Their apathy and depression make nothing seem important. Professional counseling can help work with these issues when a parent’s efforts seem to yield limited results.

Some children are less into details and more involved with the world of ideas and reading, and also avoid daily maintenance tasks. Those children need to acclimate to this world, as well — even if their behavior is not due to low self-esteem or depression. As your daughters point out, being continually “spaced-out” is not a functional mode for anyone!