Teen Daughter Won't Stop Belittling Her Brother

Filed under: Opinions

Dear AdviceMama,

My 15-year-old daughter is awful to my 13-year-old son. She is the second out of five children but only treats my third child with hate and anger. He cannot even look at her when she starts to belittle him. I am at my wits end trying to put an end to it. Should I send her to counseling?

Siblings are Suffering

Dear Siblings are Suffering,

While sibling rivalry is commonplace, there is an ever-growing body of evidence that suggests that abusive relationships with brothers or sisters can have an even greater impact on a child than poor parenting can.
I urge you to address this problem by taking your daughter to counseling. But even if you do take her to a professional, there are still ways that you can help address the underlying unhappiness that fuels your daughter's behavior towards her brother.

If you've read my previous columns, you may have seen that I often talk about something called "Act I and Act II." Most parents approach a child's problematic behavior from Act II, asking them why they say or do the things they do, and explaining in rational terms why they should behave differently.

Remember how you felt when you were 15 years old and your parents came at you with unwanted advice? Remember how certain you were that they didn't understand you? If you had siblings, do you recall being sure that your parents loved or liked your brother or sister better than you?

Many kids feel misunderstood and unappreciated by their parents, teachers, friends or siblings. Their longing to feel heard, understood and accepted for who they are prompts them to speak sarcastically, behave rudely, become aggressive, or withdraw. When we come at our kids with rules and ultimatums, it doesn't generally fix the problem because it doesn't address the root of the issue.

Give your daughter an Act I. Ask her what's going on with her brother, and then keep your lips together while she responds. Don't interrupt or disagree if she starts to say things you don't necessarily agree with. Just say, "Tell me more."

The more you can get her to offload her feelings, the more you can move her to resolve what's underneath, which is probably hurt or insecurity. Perhaps she feels her brother gets more attention, or is favored by those in the family. Maybe she thinks he has an easier time with friends or teachers. Her mean-spirited belittling will change when someone helps her move through the sadness or pain underneath it.

While a therapist will be very helpful, don't underestimate the value to your daughter in having you listen to her without focusing only on making her change her behavior. Meanwhile, give your son the same chance to feel heard by you so that he, too, has the chance to air his own hurt and pain. Let both of your children know that you love them and are going to do what's necessary so they each feel emotionally safe in the family household, and with one another.

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.