Q: My 13- and 10-year-old daughters bicker and verbally jab too much for me. Pleas for them to stop are ineffective. The older one also has a ton of eye rolls and sharp comments. My husband and I can mostly ignore her, but it’s very upsetting to my 10-year-old, which upsets me. Both are sweet, kind girls with many friends; they’re just in a bad rut with one another. I don’t need them to be best friends, but I do need them to respectfully coexist in the same house. What can we do?
A: From another parent of teen and tween daughters: I feel you. I really do. And the other parents with tweens and teens? They feel you, too.
Bickering siblings are in every household, because many of us are simply spending too much time together. The pandemic, the shutdowns, the doldrums of summer and parent burnout equals siblings bickering and arguing on a whole new level.
When it comes to arguing siblings, the worst place to find yourself in is reaction mode. This means you spend a bulk of your parenting trying to determine what to do in the midst of an argument or, worse, how to punish it. Yes, there is a practical need to stop the fighting when it’s happening, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. Call a meeting and say: “I have heard an uptick of hurtful tones and sharp comments. We are humans; we get sick of each other, and I’m not interested in placing blame and giving punishments. Also, I will stop the bickering when I hear it. If there is something I can help with, I will.”
By making this official statement, you are doing a couple of things. First, you are acknowledging the arguments without placing the blame on anyone, especially the 13-year-old. Second, you are plainly stating that you won’t put up with unkindness, so they can expect you to say something every time. Third, you are making room for the humanity of sisters arguing. “No arguing” is not a realistic goal, so we aren’t going to try to make that happen.
As for your bigger plan, I always recommend nurturing the relationship with the most discouraged child first. Thirteen-year-olds are often intense, and although there may not be a lot you can say that’s right, they still want and need your presence. Whatever your older daughter wants to do, do that with her without judgment (within reason). After some time together, you can say: “It’s not easy to have a little sister, especially in a pandemic.” Then let that statement hang for a while. It may be that your older child starts to vent or complain, and that’s good. You want to sit there and listen. The last thing a 13-year-old wants is advice, so keep your mouth shut and nod. Although you may want to interject your wisdom (I know that I desperately do), your parental power rests in your attunement and your ability to keep showing up for her. The deepest need for every person is to belong, so trust that listening to her is good enough.
I don’t know how hardened your older daughter’s heart is, so this may take a bit of time. Frustratingly, we are not in charge of how our teens communicate with us. It’s on us to keep showing up, ready to listen without judgment, and not push our own agendas. This is mature parenting work; we tend to want to either fix a bad attitude or punish it away, but this is not the way through.
Meanwhile, take your 10-year-old for ice cream and give her a chance to vent, too. “It’s hard having an older sister, right? Your sister is really changing, and sometimes that can be tough.” Our only goal is to keep hurt feelings and big emotions moving, so eat your ice cream and listen for the hints. Is the little sister complaining about bathroom use, unequal chores, her sister always on tech while she isn’t or who gets to use the TV more? You may not be able to control much of the disagreements between your kids, but there could be some tweaks in their routines or in the expectations of your family that you can address.
Finally, this is a good time to discuss puberty and all of its beauty and misery. Check in with your daughters’ understanding of hormones, cycles, and how the ups and downs of our emotional lives are a normal part of teen and tween life. I would recommend “The Puberty Podcast” by Vanessa Kroll Bennett and Cara Natterson; it’s a great listen that is both informative and funny.
And remember: Your goal is to be a strong, empathic leader of your family. We aren’t growing robots. Family life is rupture, repair, repeat.