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 our older daughter out when we hear it, by saying things like, "Hey, that wasn't kind; try saying it differently." If she can't come up with a good rephrasing, we will give her some examples. If it continues, she might get sent to her room, but we try not to do that often, as I think it just makes her angrier. We talk to her about this very often during calm times — what makes her lash out this way, why it's important to be kind, how it makes those around her feel, etc. But it's really not improving at all. I'm out of ideas on how to help her with this, and our normally very sweet younger daughter is starting to mimic some of the mean things she hears her sister say. Any suggestions?

A: Thank you for writing in. Trust me when I tell you that you are not alone in having an older sibling who is rude to their younger sibling. This is a common parenting and family problem, and you have given me important information.

Number one, you have clearly identified what isn’t working for your 8-year-old daughter: calling her out, asking her to say something differently, sending her to her room and speaking to her about behaving differently, as well as being more kind. This list is a good start, because it is good parenting information to know what is failing and then dig into the why. Why doesn’t your daughter want to restate something more kindly? Why doesn’t your daughter improve when she is sent to her room? Why isn’t she kinder when she is told, over and over, that it is important to be kind? I am not sure, but one answer is clear: Your 8-year-old is quite discouraged.

What does it mean when a child is discouraged? Well, how do you feel when you are discouraged? It may feel like you want to do, say or be better, but your attempts simply don’t work. For instance, I was struggling with a website recently and my attempts to fix the problem weren’t working. I searched for a human to talk to, but that wasn’t an option. I felt deeply frustrated and discouraged: I didn’t know how to fix my problem, I felt stupid, and I felt unsupported. And I had a little tantrum, all by myself. I cursed the website and my lack of knowledge, and then I slammed my laptop shut. Tantrum. I was frustrated that the website would not work, and I was discouraged that I could not make it work. I felt I was lacking.

Discouragement runs deep and when we further shame a child, the child becomes more and more discouraged. Shaming looks like sending a child to a room (separation causes alarm and panic), lecturing about kindness and forcing them to repeat their words “differently.”

If you don’t know why this is, practice feeling frustrated and then having a friend or partner correct you the way you are correcting your 8-year-old. You will feel unheard, unappreciated and unseen. And since your child is still young, she doesn’t have the skills and maturity to pivot into wisdom or a change in behavior.

A saying in the parent-coaching world is this: “If your child could do better, they would.” Assume your daughter is doing the best she can. This assumption will soften your heart to her, as well as soften your heart to yourself because she is not the only one discouraged. It is discouraging to watch siblings hurt each other, try to fix it and fail. It is discouraging to watch bad behavior spread. It is discouraging to feel as though you have run out of options.

How do we get the encouragement going in your family? Well, let’s stop what isn’t working. Analyze when the sisters seem to fight, and decide to be more present. Instead of asking your 8-year-old to repeat what she said, go in and take her or her sister to another location. Simply stop the action and keep the day moving. You don’t even need to say anything. I find that when the parents try to talk, the situation ends up feeling more fraught and angrier.

You have already figured out that sending your daughter to her room is too damaging, so the more nasty and angry she becomes, the more she needs love. This may look like getting on her level, waiting for her to calm down, hugging her, helping her breathe or going on a walk. Staying with a child during a struggle conveys unconditional love, and unconditional love makes a human feel secure.

When moments are calm, it is time to have fun with your 8-year-old. She needs to see joy reflected in your eyes rather than just disappointment, correction and anger. Having fun is the antidote for discouragement because humans don’t improve with shame and anger, especially children. Art, sports, driving around, eating something yummy, cooking together, reading, anything that brings a feeling of peace and happiness is what you are going for.

As your daughter thaws, you may find that you can get curious about her feelings toward her little sibling. Curiosity and lectures don’t coexist well; ask more questions than you make statements and see if that cannot improve the communication between you and your 8-year-old.

Finally, look for any favoritism toward that 5-year-old. Siblings can sniff out a preferred child a mile away, so stay curious about your biases. Could it be, for instance, that the 5-year-old really isn’t as innocent as you think? I am not saying that she is purposely “bad,” she’s 5, but I am saying that sibling dynamics are often more complicated than we parents realize. It is useful to look at the patterns we are building by what we pay attention to.

Good luck!

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