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December 26, 2023

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 150

Encore: How Do I Get My Son to Stop Picking on His Little Sister?

Episode 150

Why are tweens and teens sometimes so cruel to their younger siblings? This is a common dynamic in family life, and one that can get worse over the holidays when siblings spend a lot of time together. Dr. Lisa takes us inside the adolescent brain and explains how the onset of puberty can make it hard for kids to control their emotions. She and Reena also address the place of gendered dynamics in sibling interactions, how not to shame kids when they’ve crossed a line, and what parents can do during or after a big blowout to prevent lasting harm.

December 26, 2023 | 33 min

Transcript | Encore: How Do I Get My Son to Stop Picking on His Little Sister?

TRANSCRIPT | ENCORE: HOW DO I GET MY SON TO STOP PICKING ON HIS LITTLE SISTER?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 150: ENCORE: How Do I Get My Son to Stop Picking on His Little Sister?

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

The following transcript has been automatically generated by an AI system and should be used for informational purposes only. We cannot guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided.

——

Reena Ninan
It’s that time of year where I am really done with the carpools. I’m ready for summer. I’m ready to be sitting on the beach somewhere. I’m ready for vacation. It’s time.

Lisa Damour
It’s time. You know, in schools, they call this 100 days of May just because it just goes on and on and on. I hear you, Reena.

Reena Ninan
That’s so well said. Well, we decided to tackle the issue of sibling rivalry. Why do they happen? What’s going on here? Especially before we get into the summer months, Lisa when they’re going to be around each other all the time?

Lisa Damour
They are and it can get spicy Reena, it can get spicy.

Reena Ninan
So we got this great letter it says Dear Dr. Lisa, my 13 year old son is a really great kid. But he’s just mean to his 11 year old sister. We don’t allow name calling in our house. But he barks answers that are when she asks a question aggressively corrects her when she makes a mistake and is constantly and obviously annoyed by her mere presence. To make matters worse, my daughter looks up to her brother and tends to second his opinions, which drives him crazy. I’ve tried to talk to him, but he says we just don’t know how much she annoys him on purpose. When we’re not looking. I know that 11 year old girls can be annoying. And I know he’s not 100% without blame. But I don’t see what he sees. And I’d like for him to be a little more patient and kinder to her. Please help. So what’s going on here, Lisa? Why do they do it?

Lisa Damour
You know, I feel like this letter, we could call it the perfect storm. It just describes a dynamic that is I think very common in households and sort of the collision of developmental moments that is not always pretty. Let’s start with 13, you know that I’ve often been of the mind that 13 is one of the hardest ages developmentally is just challenging. And you know, there’s a lot going on for kids who are 13, but not the least of it is that their feelings are really, really amplified that they are in that juncture, where the emotion center of the brain has been upgraded their perspective maintaining system has not yet yet not yet been upgraded. And so when they get riled up, or stirred up, it’s really intense. And they’re not always able to walk it back. Like I kind of have this all gasp no brakes experience for being 13. So we have that dynamic in this guy. Reena, we also have a dynamic. And this is something that I wrote about in my most recent book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, that I think it can be really hard to be a 13 year old middle schooler. So he’s boy, he’s a boy. I think for boys in particular, there’s an element that can be very challenging during the school day, if they are not on the early side of puberty, and one of the things I unpacked in the book, and it was actually fascinating to work work on is that you know, developmentally 13 year old girls are way ahead of 13 year old boys just because they as a group hit puberty quite a bit earlier. And this means that they are neurologically advanced, they actually can think in more sophisticated ways. It also means they are physically ahead of the boys on average, like especially around 12, but it can bleed into 13. Girls are taller, stronger faster than boys. And so one of the things I unpacked in this book was thinking about, what does it feel like to be a sixth or seventh grade boy, though, this book could be in eighth grade, but at this time in the year, I’m assuming he’s a seventh grader, that you know, you’re out at recess and the girls are beating you except for throwing boys actually. I think it’s a practice effect. They actually throw further and harder than girls do. And then you come back in the classroom and the girls are and you hear boys talking about it. They’re more organized, they understand what’s going on. They are more on top of it. So it’s very easy for me to picture a moment where this boy has spent the day basically be schooled by girls, right? I mean, like one way or another? Yeah, hold it together. gorgeously is a decent citizen all day, you know, but has those amped up 13 year old emotions walks in the door and his little sister’s like it’s like a way on, right? I mean, you can just see it. You can see it, Reena.

Reena Ninan
But the good thing and the bad thing I guess is this is common isn’t at least I hear everybody talking about this.

Lisa Damour
It is common. And also, what’s really common is the teenager, being hard on the younger siblings, and also this dynamic of the younger siblings, like looking up to that teenager, and adoring that teenager. And I remember a mom once talking with me, about that moment when her older daughter would walk in the house, and the younger daughter would be like, Hi, Hi, here, you are so glad you’re home. And the mom said to me, I remember the language, she said. And then she says something my older daughter says something that just cuts deep. And it was so vivid, and it was such a lovely mom. And and she was just observing that like, siblings, really, you know, they’re close. And they’re also combustible. Like they know how to go after each other.

Reena Ninan
Now, one of the things I worry, especially a brother sister dynamic is, I don’t want her to think that it’s okay for guys to talk to her, even though it’s just siblings. I know I’m reading too deeply into it. But when is it problematic when the older sibling lashes out and you know, it’s affecting the younger sibling and hurting them?

Lisa Damour
You’re not reading too much into this, right? I mean, there’s also a gender dynamic in this. And I don’t think any parent would feel at ease thinking like, we’re just going to brush this under the rug and leave the younger daughter with the impression that anyone much less a man can speak to her this way. Right? I think that’s really real. So you have the problem of the 13 year old boy who is taking it out on his little sister in a way that’s not fair. Even if even if she is annoying, like his reaction is out of proportion, yeah. And then you have the problem of a little sister whose feelings are hurt. And then you have the problem with the gender dynamic, right? And that and that it’s laying out an example that you cannot allow to stand unquestioned in your home. Okay, so why don’t we take them one by one, because these are like, interesting. Like, it’s amazing how layered this very conventional moment in family life is, right? Let’s start with the fact that she’s hurt. That’s simpler. So I think that in the heat of the moment, you know, the kid comes in the door, or you walk in the kitchen, and you know, he has said something nasty, and her face drops, and she is clearly injured. I think in the heat of the moment, all you can do is get them away from each other. Right? I mean, I think going after him in that moment is not going to actually go well. I think that you need to create space between them. So you can say to him, buddy out, right? Like that is not okay, we’ll deal with this later. And then you take care of the younger child, and you say, Look, this isn’t about you. And I think that that’s what’s so important to make clear to the younger kid, is that this feels really personal. But it’s not personal. And one of the beauties of 13 year olds, is it kind of everybody annoys them.

Reena Ninan
True, so true.

Lisa Damour
So okay, I could readily say, it’s not about you, if you notice, actually, the way we blink is driving him crazy right now, right? Like, if you notice, like he can’t stand, you know, when I want to dance to the music in the kitchen, right? Like so. So just to give that younger child some context and maybe say, You know what, it’s really hard to be in seventh grade, your brother has probably been really great all day. And you know, you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. But this isn’t about you. So I think that’s the first thing we do is we take care of the younger child. Alright, then there’s this gender dynamic. I don’t know, Reena, what do you think? What would you say?

Reena Ninan
I really worry that, you know, because she looks up and idolizes her brother, is this going to be when she looks up and idolizes some love interest? Is she going to, is the message going to be okay? It’s okay. If they treat me like crap. I’ve worry about that sometimes.

Lisa Damour
Yeah, no, absolutely. So it does make me wonder right after the moment has passed. If there’s something we’re saying, certainly to the little girl, of like, you know what, your brother’s acting like this. That is not how he should act. And he knows it. And this is also just to be clear, not how anybody should talk to anybody. And you should never let anyone talk to you that way. And I’m working on your brother.

Reena Ninan
So you’re so what you’re saying is, when you do this timeout, you separate them, go to the younger child and say, Look, just merely by saying no one should be talking to you like this. This is unacceptable behavior. And acknowledging that to the child is important.

Lisa Damour
I think absolutely. And then it really does get to the fact that they have to then see that you’re gonna go do something with a brother right? I think, again, And you got to put your money where your mouth is, right? So if you say to the younger sibling, no one should speak to you like this, just to be clear, like the work isn’t done, because if you don’t then take it up with a kid who’s acting that way, you know, you could see how the younger sibling would be like, Well, great. Thanks for telling me. No one’s supposed to talk to me like that. But what are you supposed to do about it? Like, what am I supposed to do about it? Right? So, so then it gets to the piece of talking with the boy about what happened. And what keeps happening also, and I think that’s important. So again, Reena, I would say, let him cool off, get him out of there, you know, don’t let him make it worse. And look for a moment where he seems to have gotten his feet under him. And again, you know, I say this all the time right now. And I’m just gonna keep saying it. Teenagers have two sides, they have the side that was a real jerk to their little sister. And they have the side who knows that that’s not okay, and probably feels bad about it. And the side they speak to was what shows up.

Reena Ninan
I love that. “The side that you speak to is always what shows up.” I needed to hear that again, because it’s so important. So I want to talk to you about the older boy who’s putting down the younger sister. What can parents say to that 13 year old boy in the moment?

Lisa Damour
So in the moment, probably not much. But if you’ve given him space and not let him dig himself in by being worse. Then we go to him. And then we go with this idea that the side you speak to as a side that shows up. And you work with the assumption that he doesn’t feel okay about what just happened at some level, even if he’s not showing it. And I think that’s one of the hardest things about speaking to the better side of a teenager is that sometimes you’re like, I don’t see it, I can’t find it. You still got to speak to it, the chances that it will show up get much bigger if you speak to it. So I think there’s a like, I’m gonna give a few different phrases because I feel like there’s no one size fits. All right. So one is to say like, Whoa, are you okay? Right to actually just start there? Because what’s built into that is like, that was not a right and something must be wrong, right? So you could do that. Another way you could go at it is to say to him like that was pretty harsh, you know, and just name it like that was pretty harsh. What just happened? And again, then leave that there. You know, don’t launch into a lecture don’t launch into punishment. Another thing you could say In this unfortunately doesn’t feel like it would fit for this letter is like, whoa, that’s not like you, right? Like what is going on? Now that means it has to be a fairly unusual experience. Whereas in this letter this kid seems like he’s given a sister a hard time a lot of the time. So you probably can’t say that. But trying to create space to be like, what just happened? That wasn’t okay, you know what, and I know it and see what the boy can offer by way of an explanation.

Reena Ninan
And in your experience, Lisa, the “What just happened?” What is it usually?

Lisa Damour
Usually they have no idea. I think often kids will be like, I don’t know, like, wow, she’s annoying, like, you know, like, I think, you know, once in a blue moon, so why it’s worth asking is a kid might say, Okay, here’s what happened, you know, I have this terrible group project. And like, no one in my group is doing anything. And it was the last class. And I’m super annoyed, and like, I shouldn’t have done that. But like, I was already really irritated. Okay, so you may get that on a, you know, you know, really rare occasion. And that’s usually valuable, because then you can say, oh, kiddo, I’m sorry. And like, yeah, group projects, that can be the worst. And like, How can I help you with that, and like, You got to fix it up with your sister, but like, will take care of you. But I also think that parents really need to be prepared and not surprised if the kids like, I don’t know what happened. Like, she was annoying. And, and I think that’s probably the kid telling the truth. Like, they don’t know why they acted that way.

Reena Ninan
You know, what I keep thinking about in this conversation is how you talk about puberty and how boys, boys who are delayed we know when we talk about puberty, you say girls hitting puberty earlier can be difficult. But boys pupae hitting puberty later, because so much is about athletics. Fortunately, or unfortunately for boys, that that development kind of that that gender difference, but also the fact that maybe this is a boy who hasn’t fully bloomed. And is dealing with that at school.

Lisa Damour
Absolutely. And it’s interesting Reena, like, I could even see it playing. If we if we play with the puberty piece in a couple different directions. So easily, I could see a boy who, you know, is still small. And like you say that is it. When we look at the research on the impact on boys, late pubertal development is harder on them for exactly what you described, there’s a whole lot of social power that is conferred by athleticism. And being small makes it harder for boys. So you could see a kid who just like all day long is holding it together pretty well at school under conditions that just don’t feel good a lot of the time. And, you know, you’re probably looking at this in your kids ages, I’m looking at this in my younger daughters ages, I mean, the the size range is kind of extraordinary. In kids, when you are looking at sixth, seventh, and eighth, I mean, they are all over the map. And the big kids are tall and big. And the little ones are peanuts, right? I mean, it’s a big difference. So you could see that where he just comes in the house raw, and it doesn’t go well. The other version I could see is a kid who is on the earlier side of puberty, does actually enjoy quite a bit of power in in the dynamics of the sixth, seventh or eighth grade as a result of that. And, for lack of a better word is like maybe a little high on it, right? Like I get used to the idea of like, people don’t mess with me, and I don’t have to put up with stuff that doesn’t, that I don’t want to deal with. And so, you know, it’s kind of the king of the playground at school and walks in the house. And the little sister is annoying. He’s like, You know what, not dealing with it and is nasty, right, you could see it playing in lots of ways. And I think everyone in their own families will look at how this is unfolding, and be able to make their own inferences. But it’s, um, it’s extraordinarily hard. And I think what is so hard, if I think about being a parent or a caregiver in this moment, is that if you’re watching this dynamic unfold, you’re looking at two of your kids who are in pain, you know, the kid who’s in pain, who’s on the causing end of the distress, you know, the boy, and the kid is in pain, who’s on the receiving end of the distress, which is the girl and I think it’s one of those things where, you know, I’ve got two kids and it’s so hard it doesn’t happen often luckily, because our daughters are so far apart. But when you feel like your kids are at odds with each other because you just feel like your heart is split by that.

Reena Ninan
I want to ask you why is it that this you know, the boy gets annoyed when she’s second his opinion agrees with him if he’s used to being king of the hill or whatever it might be. Isn’t that great? She’s following after what he’s saying is like he’s isn’t she giving him validation? Why is he losing his mind?

Lisa Damour
It is, it is sort of an interesting and actually wonderfully specific detail in this letter. Anyway, sort of pictures of families like, you know, what do you want for dinner? And the was like, I don’t know, I could like pizza and the little sister goes, Yeah, pizza and he’s like, Ah, stop, right? Like you’re you’re right. Couldn’t you totally see it? Yes. And what it reminds me of Reena is, um, did you ever have like an interaction in like, elementary school or middle school where somebody started copying you in order to be annoying? And like, it is super annoying that people copy. Do you remember that?

Reena Ninan
I get it. And it’s like you’re trying to and that now I understand it from the psychology of you’re finding your individuality in this point. And then someone’s like, trying to copy you. I think that’s your style.

Lisa Damour
I feel like she’s copying right, even though of course, she’s probably like, yeah, pizza sounds great, right? I mean, like, she may bring nothing to the table that is meant to be provocative. And I think that in those moments, you know, if it’s super hot, you just get them away from each other. And I think if you’re like, Okay, you know, who wants better pizza? And he’s like, Yeah, pizza, and then she’s like, Yeah, pizza, and then he freaks out on her ice, like, dude, whoa, whoa, walk it back. Right? I mean, I think you can have those quick interventions that just mark it in time. Like, it doesn’t have to be that everybody goes to their corner, every time this kid is annoyed. I don’t think anything would get done in family life. But you could say she’s not trying to bug you. She’s in agreement. That wasn’t fair. And, and just leave it there without needing further unpacking or examination.

Reena Ninan
So Lisa, is there anything that parents can do to prevent this kind of sibling rivalry?

Lisa Damour
Yeah, I don’t think so. I mean, there’s rivalry in terms of competition, and that’s its own thing, but just like, this is just straight up conflict. Right. I mean, they, he’s, he’s finding her problematic and, and there’s a couple of things I think, that one can try. I just don’t, I don’t want to oversell, Reena. And I don’t want to be like yeah…

Reena Ninan
No, I love that about you. You don’t oversell you’re very honest, based on your experience, and what really goes down.

Lisa Damour
So one thing, and I am such a believer in this, the boy is saying that the sister is deliberately being annoying when the mom doesn’t say you. And that may be true. And I think you know, and I’m a big believer in making a no provoking rule in families, that siblings often do provoke one another on purpose. And it’s not altogether unusual. In a family where the little kid figures out how to push the bigger kids buttons and then pushes and pushes and pushes until the bigger kid pops and gets in trouble. Yeah, yeah, that happens all the time. So I am a big believer in having a blanket, no provoking rule and families because kids know exactly what they’re doing. When they’re doing it. They know exactly what they’re doing. When they’re on the receiving end of it. Like they, it’s, it’s very clear when it’s happening. So one thing the parent could say is like, Okay, if your sister is antagonizing, you come to me, and I will deal with her. But if you react, and you react badly, then then you’re as you know, you’re right there with her. So I can’t help you in the same way. So I think you can do that. I think the other thing is, we’re trying to help this boy feel better, right? If he feels better, he’s not going to do this. And so there’s some things that can happen. One is, you know, making sure he’s got lots of ways to enjoy himself and feel good about himself, especially if he’s a kid, who’s puberty is still you know, if he’s bringing up the caboose on puberty, so you know, giving him things that are enjoyable. The other thing that makes kids feel good is that we, they feel that we like them. And they feel that we take an interest in them in their own right. And so, I know it doesn’t seem directly connected, but I would also advise the parent or caregiver in the situation, to look for times to just connect with this guy around the things he wants to do. So, you know, maybe that he’s like, Hey, come look at this sports clip. Or, hey, you know, come watch me build on Minecraft, you know, if he’s still playing Minecraft, or, you know, hey, can we please like go to the Marvel movie and like, I’m coming up with like, very generic boy stuff, and I know it.

Reena Ninan
But you really say, finding ways to connect on interest in you as a parent doing things one on one or with them that they like could really help lessen sibling rivalry?

Lisa Damour
It will shore the boy up up and that’s how I think we want to think about it. Like let’s think about like when he’s acting this way. There’s a rawness to him, you’re coming up against an emotional rawness in this kid. And what’s causing the rawness is probably some murky combination of the neurology of being a 13 year old, the long hard day of seventh grade, the fact that the sister can be a little bit annoying, right? It’s all coming together and you Getting this battery action. So the way I would think about it is how can we shore this boy up and kind of help him to feel less raw? And the solution is to love on him, right? I mean, like, that’s the solution. So I think if you know, if you’re like, Hey, do you want to go see guardians, Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s like new in theaters. And just the two of you go do that. I almost think it’s like creating some sort of Lovering buffering for this boy creating a sense of like, you know, we like you, we care about you, we get it that it is not an easy thing to be you right now. We’re here to support you. And either, that will just help him to feel less raw overall and smoother relationships with your relationship with little sister. Or it will certainly I would say, improve the kind of conversations that are happening in the aftermath of an interaction like that. So if you do have to be like, dude, what was that, that conversation is now happening in the context of a good working relationship between you and that boy. And so there’s a better chance that he will be willing to reflect or a better chance that he’s going to not want to keep having those conversations with you, and find a way to govern his behavior a little bit better. Because, you know, you’re really fun to be with, and you go out of your way to make sure that he knows you care about them. So having these, you know, more, kind of painful conversations with you isn’t fallen, and so not worth trying to avoid. So I almost feel like, it may feel a little asymmetrical to say that the solution to the problem of the 13 year old boy walking in the house and being a jerk is to spend more loving time with a 13 year old boy. And I don’t even know that I can really explain exactly. The mechanics of this. But I believe in them.

Reena Ninan
Wow. Wow. So you’ve seen it work. And you know, it can make a difference?

Lisa Damour
It can and, and I think if I had if you’re like, Okay, really, what’s the mechanics? You want it to be that acting like a jerk messes up the otherwise good time the family is having, you know, you want it to be pricey to do that. And so if like, no one’s talking to you know, us do the things you want to do. No one’s interested in the stuff you’re interested in, you know, if you’re trying to find your fun jays, basically by hanging out with your friends, you know, walking in the house, and you know, being a bull in a china shop, like, whatever. It’s not like it was that fun anyway, right? So I think there’s so much value in working hard. And it often involves sometimes one on one with kids to make it lovely, if you can, or, or pleasant, if you can, so that there’s a little part of them right before those words are coming out of their mouth. It’s like, you know, yes, this is gonna rupture, something that’s working. And I think there’s got to be a cost to make an a play like that.

Reena Ninan
Got it. Well, I learned so much in a way that I didn’t think this was really fixable. I just thought it was just sort of a pill of parenting, we had to swallow and there was no good solution. But you gave us a lot here that can help in this situation. So thank you, Lisa. What do you have for us for Parenting to Go?

Lisa Damour
You know, Reena, I’ve been thinking a lot lately. And I don’t know why. But I’ve been thinking a lot about shame. And I think maybe it was because of our podcast on cutting. And we started to talk about it. But it’s you know, it’s one of those things that once it comes back into your mind, you sort of see it everywhere. And it just feels like this is a moment where it’s so ripe for shaming a kid right to be like, You are being a jerk to your sister or don’t talk to her like that. And I could get it where a parent would go there. And I think that that’s why I always am falling back to this idea of No, no, no talk to the other side of the kid and ask them what’s going on with the part of them that is acting in a way that is so unlike them or so not who you know they want to be. I think it lets us get right to the behavior and make clear the behaviors on unacceptable. But I think it helps us do one of the most important things we want to do in parenting, which is to keep shame out of the picture.

Reena Ninan
What a great reminder. Well, thank you so much, Lisa. I’ll see you next week.

Lisa Damour
I’ll see you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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