I received this question from a reader, and with her permission, I’m answering it here on the blog.

Dr. Naumburg,

My older daughter (who I’ll call #1) is seven years old, and her sister (#2) is four and a half. #1 is consistently friendly, compassionate, and helpful to other kids, but the moment she’s with her younger sister, it’s a different game. #2 is very affectionate physically and verbally, but her big sister just doesn’t reciprocate. If #2 even tries to hug her she will shrug it off violently and say “Stop! Get off of me!” My youngest now knows to ask, “Can I give you a hug?” but the answer is always “No.”  Recently the youngest said, “She never lets me touch her, she hates me.”

I’ve explained to #1 that it’s nice for loved ones to express their love with touch and words. That you don’t always need to let them, but sometimes it’s really nice. I’ve explained that allowing her little sister to hug her would make both of them feel good. I feel for the little one, who is always being rejected, but I also can’t force hugs if they aren’t wanted.

Any suggestions?
Sincerely, Hugless at Home

Dear Hugless,

Oh, the joy of siblings. They can be our greatest allies and our most deeply irritating enemies. This is a tricky situation, and I appreciate how hard you’ve been working to help your daughters connect. I have several thoughts for you; hopefully some of them will be useful.

First, remember that sibling tension is so, so common. It’s also common for kiddos to treat their siblings differently than they treat their friends. That doesn’t make it any less stressful to deal with, but please know that your family isn’t alone in dealing with this sort of thing.

Next, it might be helpful for you to get clear about why this situation bothers you so much. There are several different buttons it could be pushing; once you can get a handle on which one it is, you’ll have a better sense of how to proceed. Is it about your girls not connecting as well as you’d like them to? Your younger daughter being rejected? The hugs specifically?

Speaking of the hugs; it’s hard to know if that’s really what’s bothering your older daughter, but we need to start somewhere. For whatever reason, your big girl doesn’t want her sister to touch her right now (emphasis on the right now; everything changes, and this particular dynamic may be temporary), and the bottom line is that your younger daughter needs to respect that. It’s important that both girls learn that it’s ok to set boundaries around how their bodies are touched, and it’s equally important to respect other people’s bodies. (Sidenote: This is why my husband and I never tell our daughters they have to hug family or friends when saying good-bye; we let them choose between a hug, handshake, or high-five.)

It’s possible that setting clearer limits around the touching will reduce some of the stress or annoyance your older daughter is feeling, which will free her up to connect with her sister in other ways, such as talking, reading, playing, or coloring. It’s also possible it won’t make a bit of difference, in which case, you have a few other options.

As you’re encouraging your younger daughter to find other ways to connect with her sister (more on that below), get curious with your big girl about what’s going on. The key to doing this well is making sure you’re in a good headspace first. If you’re super annoyed with your daughter (which is understandable; we all have those days), or busy or stressed, then give yourself some time to get in a better place before you have this conversation. When you’re ready, find some quiet time and space to have a private talk, and let your daughter know you’re curious about how things are going with her sister. Try to stay focused on behaviors, rather than feelings or generalizations. You’re going for, “I’ve noticed you don’t like it when your sister hugs you. Can you tell me more about that?” as opposed to, “You seem really annoyed with your sister. What happened?” Try not to offer suggestions or explanations. Just listen, explore, and empathize with her until you feel like you have a good understanding of what’s going on. At that point, you might have a sense of what will help, and if you don’t, then ask her to help you come up with some ideas for what might work. (My favorite book on this topic is How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Faber & Mazlish.)

If it really is just about the hugging, then you may want to continue coaching both girls on how they can respect each other’s preferences in clear and kind ways that don’t cut off connection. For example, you might want to give your younger daughter some ideas about how to greet her sister (“Maybe you can you ask for a high-five instead?”) and you can help your older daughter brainstorm ways to respond kindly while still maintaining her boundaries (“I don’t really want a hug right now, but maybe we could look at this book together?”)

If it’s not just about the hugs–if your older daughter is generally annoyed by or irritated with her sister, well, that’s something else to problem-solve with her. Does she need a little more space from her sister in certain situations? Are there specific behaviors that are bothering her? (I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that 4 ½ year olds can be annoying sometimes…) Is there something else going on?Again, this is a place to focus on being curious so you can understand her experience.

It’s entirely possible your older daughter won’t be able to articulate what’s going on (she may genuinely not know), in which case you can focus on creating opportunities for them to have fun together and connect without the tension of having to worry about who’s touching whom or whatever. What do they both enjoy? A trip to the zoo? Building a fort? Playing Uno while sipping hot cocoa at the coffee shop? Watching a fun movie together? You can’t force them to be BFF, and that’s not what this is about. But relationships are built through shared experiences (preferably fun ones), so do what you can to create that space for them to connect.

You may not find the perfect solution right away, but hang in there. This is just another bump in the road. Eventually you’ll all get over this one (likely just in time to hit the next one, because, you know, reality), so in the meanwhile, take care of yourself and remember, this isn’t easy and you’re doing great.

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