Sister Squabbles

Q: Bli ayin hara, we have a number of daughters, all of whom are close in age — sometimes too close for comfort. Our 14-year-old — the middle one — is a little awkward socially. She sort of spaces out a lot, is not always aware that her hair is too frizzy or that her clothes don’t match, and can be unhygienic and not think that it’s a problem. All of the above is very annoying to her siblings.

This leads her to feel sorry for herself and to believe that none of her sisters like her. However, even with all of these problematic issues, she still shows little interest in changing. Happily, she has friends in school, plays with kids on the block, and does OK academically. So she just thinks that her sisters are being overly picky and that they make big issues out of nothing.

This daughter tends to ignore her sisters when they complain about her behaviors, and with some of them it becomes a “cold war” where they hardly speak to each other. Her 16-year-old and 11-year-old sisters can tease her without end when they get fed up. I myself understand why she can be so irritating.

When I try to reason with her, she just says that her siblings always pick on her and that whatever she would do they would find fault.

She claims that she has given up trying to work on the things that bother them because she is “never good enough.”

Any suggestions on how to handle this situation?

A: Sibling conflicts can easily become frozen due to the individuals involved getting 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 these negative communication patterns.

Rewarding positive patterns of constructive communication between siblings is a start. Most likely your daughter sometimes responds with obnoxious behaviors as a way of getting back at her sisters in the midst of a conflict. (The fact that your daughter exhibits obnoxious behaviors mainly with her sisters, and not her friends, indicates that it is not an overall problem.)

You could reward them, for example, with going out to a restaurant together if they speak respectfully to one another for a certain amount of time. This can help break the current “cold war.”

On the other hand, pointing out to a child (or to any person, for that matter) their areas that need improvement is not a comfortable endeavor. Some behaviors clearly do not bother the person but definitely bother others.

The whole issue of social skills deals with the area of human comfort (which is not a small thing). What is socially acceptable in a tribal village in Papua is not necessarily socially acceptable in New York. But what we might consider “normal” human behavior is not really in the realm of good or bad, but rather in how we express ourselves in our society, our cultural norms.

The idea of being “put together” is a subjective one. Having frizzy hair for one class in your daughter’s school may be socially acceptable, while in another it might become a subject for teasing.

Actual social skills can be shared by a parent with the child, or can be taught by a professional. (Clearly, things that are obnoxious or disgusting do not fall in this category). In the long run, allowing oneself to do whatever one feels like is not conducive to developing good relationships.

In this situation, when your daughter questions why her siblings respond to certain of her behaviors with such annoyance, or why her dealings with a classmate are socially problematic, your response must not be to treat these things as if they were in the category of right or wrong. You should stress to your daughter that allowing others to feel comfortable (at this point, your daughter is well aware of which actions irritate others) is simply being considerate and showing ahavas Yisrael.

The issue here is more of putting effort into being aware of and attuned to the feelings and sensitivities of others. Keeping this in mind — that this awareness is a way of showing kindness to others — may take the sting out of being criticized.