Our Sister Is Annoying Us

Q: Bli ayin hara, we have a number of daughters who are close in age, and sometimes it is too close for comfort. Our 14-year-old daughter is a little awkward in her social skills, “spaced-out,” not always aware of her appearance and is generally not “put together.” She can be unhygienic and not think that it’s a problem, and all of this is very annoying to her siblings.

She can easily feel sorry for herself, and feel that none of her sisters like her. However, with all these issues, she still has a limited desire to change these areas in her life. She has good friends, plays with people on the block and does okay in school. She just thinks that her sisters are being overly picky and making big issues out of nothing.

This daughter tends to ignore her sisters when they start to complain about her behavior. It becomes a “cold war” of not really talking to each other. Her 16-year-old and 11-year-old sister can tease her without end when they are fed up with her. I myself understand why it’s so irritating.

When I try to reason with her, she just says that they always pick on her, and that whatever she would do, they would find fault. She said that she has given up trying to work on the things that they tell her, because she is never “good enough.”

The fact is that there are some social cues that she just does not pick up, and does need to work on. Any suggestions of how to handle this situation?

A: Sibling conflicts can easily be “frozen,” due to individuals being “stuck” in their responses to one another. Changing patterns of communication among family members is the desired path to take to improve your situation. Sometimes small changes are enough to motivate improvement in negative communication patterns.

Rewarding positive patterns of constructive communication between siblings is a start. Most likely, your daughter sometimes responds with obnoxious behaviors in the midst of a sibling conflict as a way of getting back at her sisters.

If your daughter exhibits obnoxious behavior only with her sisters (and not her friends), it is problematic, but not an overall problem. Having a sibling goal of “going out to a restaurant together, as sisters” if each speaks respectfully to one another for a certain amount of time can help break the current “cold war,” for example.

On the other hand, pointing out to a child areas in need of improvement — or pointing out to any person, for that matter — is not a comfortable endeavor. Some behaviors clearly do not bother them, but definitely bother others. The whole issue of social skills deals with the area of human comfort (which is not a small thing). Often, what we might consider “normal” in human behavior is not necessarily in the realm of “good” or “bad,” but rather how we express ourselves in our society. (Clearly, actions that are obnoxious or disgusting are not in this category.)

In this situation, if your daughter questions why her siblings respond to certain of her behaviors with such annoyance, or why her reaction towards a classmate is socially problematic, your response has to not be in the category of “right” or “wrong.” Allowing others to feel comfortable (at this point, your daughter is well aware of which actions irritate others) is being considerate, and showing ahavas Yisrael.

It is true that the idea of being “put together” can be a subjective one. Unkempt hair for one group in your daughter’s school may be socially acceptable, while in another, it may become a subject for teasing. Actual social skills can be shared through parent and child, or learned from a professional.

The issue here is more of putting effort into being aware (and attuned) to the feelings and sensitivities of others. Being comfortable to “do whatever you feel like” will not always be helpful to your daughter in relationships with others in the long run. Keeping in mind that this awareness is a way of showing kindness to others may take away the sting of being criticized.