My nine-year-old is mean is moody and mean to her sister

Parent Question:
My nine-year-old girl is moody, so much so it affects the balance of our family of six. She is our eldest and I’m always on edge as to what her mood will be. I find as a mother I don’t like her at times. Don’t worry I don’t show this, but I do have to do a lot of giving out … as she can be so mean to our youngest two-year-old. I constantly hear, ‘I don’t care about her’ from her. I reinforce my love for her, but I don’t like the behaviour. School is also hard for her as she struggles with friendships and finds it hard to connect socially with her peers. How to get the balance right in our home for peace to flow? That’s what I need. Thanks.

I appreciate your honest question. When dealing with challenging behaviour it is common as a parent to sometimes feel like you don’t like your child. Rather than repressing or denying these feelings it is a good idea to acknowledge them to yourself and see them as a “wake-up call” that something needs to change. While you can try to be careful and not to show these feelings, sometimes they can seep through and cause you to be more critical which can further damage your relationship. As a result it is important to address what underpins these feelings and to take steps to change them and to cultivate more positive feelings instead.

Help your daughter with her relationship with her sister
A central issue seems to be her relationship with her younger sister. It is very common for older children to feel “usurped” by their younger sibling and to feel that their parent favours the younger one. You describe how she can be “mean” to her sister and that you have to do “a lot of giving out” to manage this. However, this pattern of constantly criticising her for how she treats her sister is not only ineffective, it is likely to make their relationship much worse and further erode her confidence.

Over the years I have spoken to hundreds of children caught up in these sibling dynamics and they almost always feel insecure and that their parent favours the younger child. The key to changing this dynamic is to respond more positively and more impartially to their disputes rather than “giving out” and blaming the older one. To do this you can:

1. Try to understand what is going on from both your children’s perspectives, your eldest may be frustrated with the youngest, but the youngest may be doing something to annoy her sister.

2. Try to “get in early” to support your daughters before a dispute escalates to “mean behaviour”.

3. Listen: If mean behaviour happens, rather than giving out, suggest a break to talk to your daughter. Make sure you listen to her feelings before you correct her: “You look frustrated, tell me what is going on, what are you feeling?”

4. Correct positively: “You can normally be so kind to your little sister, lets see more of this.”

5. Explore solutions. Explore ways you she can get on with her sister. “I know it is sometimes hard having a little sister, but I really love it when you get on well together. How can you get on better with her? How can I help you?”

6. Praise your daughter any time she gets on well with her sister: “Really great to see you play with your sister – she loves that from her big sister.”

7. Give her a responsibility to mind her sister and reward her for this. For example, you might ask the girl to do art for an hour each day with her sister, and if she does it well she gets some pocket money. This time together will improve their relationship.

As managing sibling rivalry well is crucial to harmony in families, I have many more articles on the subject at and

Change how you see your daughter
Rather than seeing your daughter as “being mean”, see the girl who is insecure in her relationship with you and her sister, and who needs lots of support and reassurance. Rather than seeing her as “moody” see her as a sensitive, loving, caring child who can easily get upset and needs a bit of support to manage her emotions. This shift in perspective to appreciate her strengths and to be more empathic can be transformational.

Practically, it will make it easier to respond differently. For example, when she wakes up in a bad mood, rather than thinking “oh no another mood, what is the matter with her”, which will cause you to react negatively, you can see the child who is struggling and who needs support which will help you respond better.

Build your relationship
Probably the biggest step you can make to help her is to cultivate your relationship with her. You want to find a way of having fun and bringing back lots of positive feelings for her. Set up a routine where you have time together doing something you both enjoy, ideally on a one-to-one basis. This might be walking the dog, doing crafts, having a bedtime chat, doing a weekly shop or watching a favourite TV series or YouTube videos together, when the youngest is in bed.

Persist so you find something that works for you and her. Sometimes, I suggest that parents “love bomb” their children in order to repair relationships. This means that you spend lots of extra play and fun time with your child over a two-week period as a means of resetting or improving a relationship.

I know you are busy with a large family of six, but fitting in even a few minutes of quality time with your daughter can make a difference. If you are co-parenting, getting your partner involved can facilitate this routine. You also might be able to integrate this quality time into the daily routine of chores that have to be done.

For example, some parents have their daily individual chatting time with kids, doing the laundry, loading the dishwasher or putting out the bins together.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the School of Psychology, University College Dublin. This parenting Q&A was originally published in the Irish Times in July 2021. John writes in the Irish Times Newspaper on Tuesdays. His website is