Q: Our 8-year-old is pretty much constantly rude, critical and superior-acting toward her 5-year-old sister, who rarely, if ever, instigates it. We’ll try to call her out when we hear it by saying something such as: “Hey, that wasn’t kind. Try saying it differently.” If she can’t come up with something better, we’ll give her examples. If it continues, she might get sent to her room, but we try not to do that often, because I think it makes her angrier. We talk to her about this very often during calm times: what makes her lash out, why it’s important to be kind, how it makes those around her feel, etc. But it’s not improving at all. I’m out of ideas for how to help her with this, and our normally sweet younger daughter is starting to mimic some of the mean things she hears her sister say. Any suggestions?
A: I have been getting many questions that are just like this. So many, in fact, that I had to check to make sure I didn’t already answer this. It may be cold comfort, but an older sibling showing rudeness to a younger sibling is almost guaranteed in most families. The main reason siblings are unkind to each other is obvious (but often ignored): Immature people pushed together equals disagreements and meanness. Whoever has the edge on language development will be the one taking verbal shots first. But trust me: Once that younger one gets her insults ready, she will give as good as she gets.
Other than normalizing this behavior for you and every other parent out there, I would like to focus on parenting techniques that are, frankly, the worst. I am not saying this to guilt anyone. I’m just exasperated that I continue to see this strategy used, despite it not working most of the time. One of the simplest ways to frustrate your child is to ask or demand that child to say something differently. (“Hey, that wasn’t kind. Try saying it differently.”) Because of this, you’ll almost never get the behavior you want to see.
Why is this? Well, there’s an adage that goes, “Kids do well if they can.” This means that if your 8-year-old could have asked something of her sister in a more kind, gentle and mature tone, she would have done so. Whatever tone she used was done out of frustration, and demanding she use different words adds frustration to frustration, which only equals more frustration. She gets sent to her room because of this, leaving her feeling rejected, angry and, yes, frustrated.
Nothing has been gained, nothing has been learned, and your relationship with her has been further compromised.
Let’s stop asking or demanding that she restate her words. When you hear her getting snippy, immediately step in, get on her level and say something such as: “It sounds like you want your sister to leave the room so you can play with the Legos. I’ll help you work this out with her.”
This is our parental work; we act as our children’s prefrontal cortex until they mature, not vice versa. American parenting culture will have you say, “My 8-year-old daughter is old enough to speak kindly,” then have you punish or lecture her until she does it. But that isn’t how maturation works. Your 8-year-old needs support, not gaslighting and separation.
I do like that you talk to your daughter in calm times, because lessons should never be given when all parties are upset, but we need to tweak the content a bit. When working with 8-year-olds (or anyone), revisiting past misbehavior and telling them that they make people feel bad often results in shame. Children don’t do well with shame. They cannot go back in time and change anything they have already done, so we need to use clear, co-created, future-oriented language and strategies.
Instead, say: “Ava, I have noticed that you are getting frustrated with your little sister. What is annoying you the most?” Then sit and listen. Is there a pattern around space? Toys? Other annoying behaviors? When you feel you have a clearer picture, try to work on solutions that focus on the problems, not on your daughter’s lack of kindness.
Be sure to highlight every time she is kind and patient, because we want to grow the good. And when she gets mean, use short, direct and non-shaming language. (“We are not going to yell at your little sister. Come with me.”) Use the same short phrases over and over (more for you than for her), and resist the urge to send her to her room and demand that she use different words.