04/08/2015 09:49 am ET Updated Jun 08, 2015

13-Year-Old Becoming a Mean Big Sister

Our daughter is 13, and although her teachers and friend's parents tell us she is delightful, she is horrible to her younger brother, and to me. It is especially hard on her 10-year-old brother to hear people praising her for being so sweet when she teases and ignores him. How can we cope better? She used to be very easy-going but she is turning into a rude and sassy teen. The only time she's her old self is when it's late at night or she's under the weather.

It is very difficult to see our child being mistreated, but even more so when the unkindness comes from one of our other children. And on top of that, it's as though you "miss" the daughter you once knew. Here are some thoughts that may be of help:

• See the behavior for what it is... and isn't. Although some kids (and their lucky families!) breeze through the tween and teen years, most youngsters show at least some signs of discomfort at being in their own skin during this time. Hormones, peer pressure, social issues, and academic challenges all play a role in generating tremendous stress. Those bottled up feelings may be containable around teachers and friends, but they have to come out at some point, or they fuel anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, the release valve is home life -- the people and place where kids feel safe enough to let it all hang out. It isn't personal.

• Look for the good. Trust me when I say that your daughter knows she isn't showing up as her best self. Many tweens and teens confess to me privately that they often feel like they're observing themselves from a distance, watching as they speak or behave in ways that they feel terrible about, but unable to stop. (Many adults say the same thing!) Catch your daughter in acts of kindness. Doing so will help her know that you still see the loving girl she is, underneath her negative behaviors.

• Foster closeness and connection. It is much harder to be cruel to someone when we feel they see and like us. Now, I understand that's a lot harder to do with a child who is being disagreeable, but look for chances to share a laugh, whip up a dessert, or have a cuddle while you watch a movie together. Your daughter needs you, even if it feels like she is pushing you away with her unpleasant behavior.

• Be disruptive. If your daughter starts lashing out at her brother or you, see if you can break the momentum, and help her find herself again. This may not always work, but sometimes a youngster who is on a negative rampage is immensely grateful when we help break the spell. Chase her around the house. Take both kids outside for a squirt gun fight. Put on loud music for an impromptu dance contest. It just might work!

• Create opportunities for heartfelt conversation. In both of my books I talk about an exercise that I call The Three Yeses. The essence of this activity is that you will allow your son to speak to his sister for two to three minutes while she listens without interrupting, rolling her eyes, or arguing. His job is to express what it feels like when she dumps on him, and her job is to get him to say "Yes" at least three times by rephrasing things she heard him say. They then switch. This can be a very deep and effective way of helping both kids develop greater compassion for one another.

It is indeed difficult to navigate adolescence -- for kids and parents and siblings! Hopefully, these suggestions will help make life a little easier... and kinder.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the upcoming, Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.

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