Dear Emuna,

My older daughter (16) is always telling her younger sister (10) how stupid she is or clumsy or incompetent, just constantly insulting her. It really hurts my younger daughter’s feelings but I don’t know how to stop it. Do you have any ideas?

Distraught Mom

Dear Distraught,

This is actually a situation where you need to tread delicately. I’m usually in favor of letting kids work things out on their own unless there’s blood. I have found that in our overpowering desire to have our kids get along, we may end up pushing them apart through our interference. I have noticed that even children who weren’t close as kids may end up close as adults, particularly if we stay out of the picture. And conversely, I have noticed that even adult children whose parents continue to interfere in their relationships have a hard time developing closeness. So the general rule is to stay out of it.

On the other hand, there is a certain level of meanness and cruelty that we can’t tolerate. Take your daughter aside and, in a quiet moment, explain that you never speak to her like that and you expect that in return she will not speak to you, her father or her siblings like that either. Do not get involved in the moment or give any appearance of taking sides. If it continues to happen, keep reinforcing this message in private.

As we all know, our teenagers are not in such control of their words or emotions. Instead of giving in to our frustration, we need to recognize (and perhaps help their younger sister recognize) that they are not completely responsible for their actions (I used to ask the younger kids to promise me that they wouldn’t be the same when they reached their teenage years but of course they were!). You may not see an obvious change in your daughter’s behavior. But even if the change is subtle, or seemingly non-existent, don’t give up. Your words make an impact and you never know at what point they will finally sink in and that impact will be felt.

Dear Emuna,

My older son (17 and a high school senior) has been a model child. While my friends were discussing all the pains of adolescence, I just listened and smiled. I clearly had done something right and was experiencing none of the defiance and disrespect they received. I was thus completely unprepared for my younger (15 year-old) son’s acting out. I was shocked by his rudeness, his disobedience and his cavalier attitude towards our household rules. I feel like I am out of my depth here and could use some advice.

Parent of a Teenager

Dear Teenager’s parent,

I’m sure all your friends are nodding their heads knowingly as you describe your first real foray into the world of adolescence. While you don’t go into details, from the general description, your experience and your son’s behavior seem well within the normal range. That doesn’t mean it should all be tolerated but you need to choose your battles.

You mention household rules: Is he breaking them? Which rules? Curfew for example? This is a tricky one. On the one hand, his friends may genuinely have a later curfew putting him in an uncomfortable position. On the other hand, it may be unsafe for him to be out late. Or it may just be too difficult for you. The best strategy is not to attack (never attack) and to direct the blame onto yourself. “I can’t sleep when you are out late; please be home at – pick a reasonable time – so that I can relax and go to sleep.” It’s hard to argue with that position.

You need to be a little flexible and consider if perhaps some of your other household rules are a little antiquated or don’t apply in his particular situation or could be adapted depending on the circumstances. Don’t be too rigid.

In terms of disrespect, this also “depends”! Is he yelling? Is he openly rude? If so, then I would give you the same advice I gave the previous letter writer. Find a quiet moment and don’t give a speech on manners but rather discuss the way in which you treat him with courtesy and your expectation of similar treatment in response. This is also hard to argue with.

When he gets defiant, the main thing is not to get caught up in the struggle. He will need to prove himself and one of you may say or do something you regret. Walk away until he calms down. Don’t take it personally (you’re just the most convenient target) and remember what I am constantly reminding parents of teenagers. Underneath that tough exterior is a terrified little boy who is afraid of the responsibility and independence awaiting him in the near future. Never stop praying and never stop loving. Good luck!

Dear Emuna,

I try to start my day off with prayer. I want to recognize that everything comes from God so, like my teachers taught me, I ask Him for what I need and what I think my children need. By the time I list all of my children’s needs (I have 7 children and 3 grandchildren), I actually feel depressed and overwhelmed. I thought I was supposed to feel relieved and uplifted! Do you have any suggestions for me?

Depressed Praying

Dear Depressed,

I totally understand how you feel. While it is true that everything we have comes from the Almighty and one of the goals of prayer is to reinforce this recognition, I have found that making the kind of lists you are making is not a productive strategy. Instead of listing all of my needs and my children’s needs and my grandchildren’s needs, I ask the Almighty to lift the burden of their needs off of me and carry it for me. I figure that since He is doing it anyway, recognizing this is the real accomplishment. Then I just ask Him to give Me the strength to do His will with joy.

I have found that using this technique instead of the “list of needs” approach has dramatically changed my morning prayer experience. Instead of walking away focused on all that’s (seemingly) missing in my life and the lives of my children, I feel relieved of my cares and optimistic about the future. I highly recommend this plan and change of focus. Please let me know if it works!