Older Sister Manipulates Younger Ones

Q: During the week we read Parashas Kedoshim, my children were discussing the idea of nekamah (taking revenge). It was particularly relevant to two of our daughters, who often take revenge on each other —first by the older one making unfair “trades” (her vision of business deals) with her sister, and then the younger sister giving her older sister the “silent treatment” in retaliation.

The younger daughter often comes complaining to me about her older sister’s questionable deals, saying that the only reason she gets involved in them is that her older sister pressures her so much. (Besides getting younger siblings to trade belongings that they actually like, she also manipulates them into doing chores for her. She pleads to me that they agree to her “work contracts,” but I sense coercion on her part and a general sense of naïveté on theirs.)

Our younger daughter is definitely a people pleaser, and yet she seems to get angry at herself when she does give in too easily.

The older daughter complains that her younger sister is taking nekamah when she refuses to speak to her. The younger daughter feels that her older sister takes nekamah on her by creating these unfair deals in response to her younger sister ignoring her. How can I put a stop to this never-ending cycle?

Also, this older daughter often says that she is the least-favored child in the family (and I wonder if this is her way of trying to manipulate us). But I can understand why she might feel like the least favored — I feel like we have a wheeler-dealer businessman in the house instead of an 11-year-old daughter! But since she isn’t lying or cheating, I find it difficult to explain the idea of manipulation to her. She’ll just get defensive and go on a rant, complaining that she’s not being understood or appreciated. Any thoughts?

A: A discussion with one’s child about any type of negative character trait is difficult to tackle head on. The issue of explaining why “manipulation does not pay” is a difficult concept for a child to integrate — even one who is shrewd enough to use this mechanism to her advantage. She sees that she often “wins” this way, even if it is only a temporary sense of gratification — and whatever we may say may not counter that inflated sense of fleeting victory.

Sometimes explaining what her siblings love about her, and how you want their relationships to remain strong, overrides the question of “who is right and who is wrong?” By stating your desire to not get into the details of their “business deals,” you override the tendency of such discussions to end in power struggles.

Verbally stressing the times when she has been empathetic and giving towards family members helps to help re-direct her vision of herself. She has a need to feel important and noticed, and this can be accomplished by giving her roles of responsibility (and rewarding her for these actions).

By staying neutral, and agreeing that her siblings did initially agree to her “deal,” you can begin in a non-judgmental position (which can be difficult to maintain). You then need to stress how siblings can have mixed feelings about trading toys, etc., and a loving family member shows respect by giving space, and letting them decide what to do. It’s a sign of respect.

The phenomenon of younger siblings wanting to please older siblings is common, and the younger sibling can then resent feeling “pushed into things” — whether it is performing another’s household chores or giving away snacks. They have not yet learned skills of negotiation, or how to express their needs in a more mature way. In that situation, when siblings feel exasperated and frustrated, resorting to the silent treatment can be their way of expressing resentment towards their overbearing sibling.

Again, the idea of creating a lifelong relationship of mutual trust and caring amongst siblings needs to be the focus. The overbearing child needs to learn to feel empathy toward her younger siblings, and to imagine how they feel when being cajoled by a demanding older sister.

Iy”H, we’ll discuss the issue of breaking the cycle of nekamah in a family in an upcoming column.