A parent wrote me with this question:
My 14-year-old is always angry with her 11-year-old sister. She is also rude with me. She is very caring to others, especially little children, and is a good friend at school. It is hard for my younger daughter to watch her older sister be so kind to others and so mean to her. We don't like this new, mean teenager. We want the pre-teen back! How can I help her act with civility?
Here was my response:
If it's any comfort to you, there are probably thousands of parents reading your question who feel they could have written it themselves. It's painful to watch anyone treat our child unkindly, but it's doubly difficult when one of our own children is inflicting the damage. On top of that, it's awful to see what was once a cheerful youngster transform into someone unrecognizable as she or he moves into the teen years.
Adolescence isn't just tough on the person going through it; the rest of the family suffers as much or even more, as they endure moodiness and bad attitudes! Here's my advice:
Start scheduling regular family meetings, perhaps just after Sunday dinner, or on Saturday mornings before everyone heads out to their separate activities. If possible, gather in a room you don't ordinarily hang out in to create a focused atmosphere.
Begin each meeting by sharing something you appreciated during the week about each member of the family, being as specific as possible. "Sarah, I wanted you to know how relieved I was when I got home from my class on Tuesday and saw that you had already fed the dog." "Claire, it really touched me when you called Grandma, all on your own, to tell her about your audition." Take your time, elaborating with about something positive you observed them doing, and how it affected you.
Then have each of your daughters (and your partner, if you have one) do the same for everyone else. It may take time for them to sincerely offer kind words to one another (especially your older daughter) so don't criticize if they're reluctant or sarcastic.
Once you're shared what you appreciate, invite each member of the family to bring up something that has upset or hurt them during the week. Encourage everyone to use "I" statements: "I got sad when I tried to talk with you about the show you were watching and you just glared at me." Or, "When I wanted to borrow your sweater and you said 'No' in a mean way, I got really mad -- and hurt."
Try to show your girls how to express feelings in a way that avoids judging or blaming, which simply puts people on the defensive. Set a time limit so no one is allowed to ramble on and on, and don't require the listener (the one who hurt someone's feelings) to do anything other than listen respectfully.
It will be especially helpful if your daughters are able to express the hurt underneath their anger. While lectures probably won't penetrate your 14-year old's defensive shell, if she hears her younger sisterauthentically revealing how her unkindness is impacting her heart, she may soften.
Finally, let your girls know what specific behaviors you would like them to work on changing in the coming week. It might be that you want them to speak more politely to one another, or to lend a hand before dinner. By targeting just one shift you want them to make, you'll see more progress.
Now, I am very aware that this may not play out smoothly. Your 14-year old may roll her eyes, or think this is "lame." But try to establish to a weekly family meeting ritual, making it a safe time and place for each member of the family to listen to one another, and to feel heard.
While it's difficult to legislate "niceness" with punishments, families who work to keep the sense of connection strong tend to navigate the adolescent years with more sanity -- and more kindness.