The Older Sister Blues

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31 Dec 2014


A recent letter I received:

I have two daughters very close in age, about a year a part.  The younger one, Sara, adores her older sister and copies everything she does—her hair, her clothing, what she reads, etc. She loves to play with her and her friends. Rachel, the older one, wants nothing to do Sara. She ignores her when she is with her friends, calls her names and is just plain mean. Sara gets so hurt but still thinks the world of Rachel.

This breaks my heart. I have told Rachel over and over to “Just be nice to Sara!” to no avail. Then she gets mad at me.

What can I do to help Rachel be nicer to Sara?

Sibling rivalry is tough to watch and tough to manage. There are many things that you can do to help kids get along, but you will never fully get rid of sibling rivalry. It is a normal and natural part of family life.

In this particular sibling drama try to understand that the “mean” child is not acting this way because she is actually a bad person. It is tough to handle the adoration of a younger sibling, especially when that sibling copies everything you do.  To get a clearer picture of this situation — try to put yourself in Rachel’s shoes.

Let’s say you had a neighbor, Sima.  She seems like a nice person and you strike up a friendship with her. Then you notice that she is wearing the same shoes that you had just bought and went to your hairdresser and got the same hairstyle as you. Whenever your friends come over to your house, she shows up and tries to command the conversation.

In some ways your neighbor’s behavior can be flattering, she obviously likes you and your sense of style.  It is more likely, though, that you would be really annoyed with her. You would limit the time you spent with her. You would leave her out and meet your friends at the local coffee shop instead of your home.

You probably wouldn’t call her names to her face, but you certainly would complain about her to your friends and your spouse.

Rachel, the “mean” sister, feels the same way you do; she is dealing with an “adoring” younger sister, similar to Sima your “adoring” neighbor. It might be flattering, but mostly it’s just plain annoying. Rachel looks like she is the “mean” one, but she is just frustrated. It can be tiresome to be an object of adoration and to have your every action copied by a younger sister.

How is Rachel coping with all this? In the same way we would deal with Sima the neighbor. Rachel avoids Sara as much as possible, talks badly about her to her friends and to Sara’s face (she is a sister not a neighbor after all) and she doesn’t let Sara play with her friends.

To continue with the analogy, let’s say Sima’s husband comes to you and tells you that Sima is very hurt by your behavior. He tells you that she just thinks the world of you. He ends off by saying, “Can’t you just be nice to her?”

Now, you would probably feel awful about yourself, but also even more irritated with Sima and her husband. There is no relief in sight for you, unless you move.

When you tell Rachel how mean she is and say “Can’t you just be nice to her?” she probably feels terrible about her behavior.  It’s not fun to be the “mean” one. But she also will be angry at you.

She needs help sorting through her feelings, not criticism. She also needs some strategies to deal with this problem. The strategies she is using—calling Sara names, avoiding her, and not letting her play with her friends—are not working out well for her.

Now we understand both sides of the story. We can have as much compassion for Rachel as we do for Sara. We have evened the playing field. So now what can we do to help Rachel be nice to Sara? How can we help her sort out her feelings and gain better strategies to deal with the frustration of dealing with an “adoring” sister?

What can we do to help Rachel and Sara get along?

1. Name the feelings for Rachel:

As we mentioned, just gaining an understanding of Rachel’s side of the story allows us to have compassion for Rachel and acknowledge that she really is not “mean.”

You can then reflect Rachel’s feelings back to her:

“It can be frustrating to have Sara copy what you do.”

“You wish Sara would let you hang out with your friends by yourself.”

Just having a mom who appreciates how she feels can reduce the tension significantly. Rachel might even soften towards Sara, once she has someone who understands her conflicted feelings.

2. Find some other interests for Sara: 

You can also let Sara know in a gentle way that it can be hard to be the younger sibling:

“It can be hard to make your own decision, when you look up to your sister. You like to have Rachel’s input, when deciding on your clothes, and how you should spend your day.”

You can also let Sara know that sometimes it is tough for Rachel to have someone look up to her always:

“Sara, I think Rachel would like to do her own thing sometimes. Sometimes it feels good to have someone look up to you, but sometimes you need a break. Sometimes Rachel needs to play with her friends alone.”

Try to encourage Sara to make her own decisions when Rachel is not around:

“Sara, what do you think we should make for dinner, chicken or fish?”

“Sara, do you think I should wear this necklace or this pin with this outfit? You can then praise her for it, (again, preferably when Rachel is not around.)

“Thanks for making the decisions about dinner. Chicken was a good choice, everyone enjoyed it.”

“I got so many compliments on my outfit tonight- thanks for your advice!”

3. Notice when Rachel controls herself with Sara:

“When Sara was talking to your friend, I saw you were annoyed, but instead of saying anything to Sara, you just suggested to your friend that you would study better at her house.”

You can also have Rachel hear something positive about her. You can tell your spouse:

“It has got to be hard for Rachel sometimes. Younger siblings can definitely be tiresome. I remember that when I was a kid. Rachel can really be kind and patient. She let Sara wear her sweater today.”

4. Role Model:

It might also be helpful to role model how you act when someone copies you:

“I was so irritated with Sima our neighbor; she bought the same shoes that I did. But then I realized I probably should just be flattered that she liked them so much, she went out to get it.”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.