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Try talking to them about the ugly power of words.
Try talking to them about the ugly power of words.

Sibling rivalry

Whether it is and older sister being nasty or grandparents neglecting the brother over the sister, parents have to learn to strike the right balance

Our older daughter, 13, is a star student, popular and well-regarded by teachers and our extended family. At home, however, she is getting more and more vicious towards her younger sister, who is 8. There is nothing physical, but she is mean. Recently, she was so dismissive and nasty to her on some simple matter that the younger one literally went into a shell (not a sulk) for half a day.

When we tried to talk to the older one, she shouted: “You don’t know how much naatak (drama) she does to look like an innocent goody-goody." When we asked her to elaborate, she said it would be of no use, since no one would believe her because the younger one was the “cutie pie". I am very disturbed by the rage—and the fact that she manages to keep up a front in school, including being nice to her sister in public.

That is raging adolescence going into full bloom! And sibling rivalry of course.

Your older one is consciously or subconsciously aware that her baby/child days are ending. The pressures of growing up and out of childhood, being an achiever, the hormonal changes within, all these create imbalances, and the easiest and most obvious target becomes her younger sister.

While you must have tried to talk to her (when she is not in a rage), try talking to her about the negative ugly power of words. Instead of focusing on how bad the younger sister must feel (which is currently exactly what the older one wants), you could get her to talk about how she manages her frustrations and the ups and downs with others, but about what riles her so much about her sister.

Do also pay some attention to her words “naatak", “cutie pie", “goody-goody" and “no one will believe me". Maybe the younger one does (as most children do at some time or the other) “play" you a little, and gets away with a lot of things. See what the older one has to say, and discern whether she believes her younger sister is being manipulative and clever.

The older one probably also needs assurance in the form of some amount of babying from you and her father, so that she doesn’t feel like only the younger one has access to that extreme comfort zone with you as parents. The fact that the younger one hero-worships her gives her more power to hurt her in a way, but also makes her feel distanced and forced to be more grown-up than she is perhaps ready to be.

You could ask your older one, as a secret exercise between you and her, to write down one thing that annoys her about her sister every day, instead of exploding every few days. You could then (a little later) perhaps lead her into writing down one thing that she loves/enjoys about her younger sister—while she may be loath to admit it in the family space, she may find it easier to do this as part of the secret exercise.

What do you do if grandparents openly favour one child over the other? My daughter is 4 and son, 7, and from the time that she was born, they are just ga-ga over her. Initially, we all took it in our stride, including our son, because she was a new baby and we were all so pleased. But over the last four years my husband and I can see how they have simply no time for the boy and make no effort to involve him or shower any love on him; he notices it too and has begun to get angry with his sister. Whenever I have tried to talk to them, they have not liked it at all, and have made no effort to change their attitude towards him. My husband says this is the way it was between his sister and him when they were growing up, and we’ll just have to live with it. How should we tackle this?

That is unfair for everyone around, including the little one who is currently so cherished by her grandparents. It is making your son unhappy and creating anger, jealousy and resentment in him for his sister.

While your husband may have had to grow up with being neglected or ignored and his sister being the favoured one, surely your son doesn’t have to. Since you have not managed to get the grandparents to modify their behaviour, and your husband does not seem to want to take it up with his parents, it has squarely become your problem!

Your best bet would be to find ways to hold your son back and let the grandparents take the younger one home. Don’t make a big statement out of it, but organize something interesting and fun that you and your son, or your husband and your son, can do together during this time. Do not make it look like you are “compensating" for his grandparents’ behaviour. Genuinely set up something fun and engrossing for him to do, either with you, or with another couple of friends, or with his dad—be careful that it is not something he feels forced to do. It could be something as simple as going on a drive, having “grown-up" tea and biscuits at a dhaba, baking a cake or making a grilled cheese sandwich (these are just examples; you will know better what you and your child can bond over).

Do not feel obliged to explain anything to the grandparents, if you think spelling things out has not worked. Simply make your son unavailable to them at least four out of the five times that they plan to take the children. While you don’t have to teach him to actively dislike the grandparents, surely you can arrange things so that he is not left feeling actively ignored around them.

Gouri Dange is the author of More ABCs Of Parenting (Random House) and ABCs Of Parenting.

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