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Is My Eldest Daughter Eclipsing Her Sister?

Catherine Newman is the author of the memoirs Waiting for Birdy and Catastrophic Happiness, as well as the blog Ben and Birdy. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her partner and their son and daughter who have mysteriously become as...

How to deal with a total eclipse of...your child

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Welcome to “Survivor,” in which author Catherine Newman tries to answer your questions about adolescents and why they’re like that — and how to love them despite everything.

Have a question for Newman? Send it to her here.

Question: 

I'm afraid my younger daughter, M (age 12) is being eclipsed by my older daughter, A (age 14). A has things she is passionate about; M really doesn't. A will have long conversations about world events, current issues and teenage worries, while M just sits and listens. If A isn't around, it feels very hard to make conversation with M. A has always been very responsible and mature for her age; M is a little more flighty, though she does well in school without any prompting or assistance from me.

She is my child, and I love her with all my heart, but she is harder to connect with because of the distance she keeps. I think she feels this too. I don't want her to feel left out — or that her sister always takes the spotlight. Any advice?

Answer:

Oh, that’s a little heart-squeeze-y, your question. Not to be all Romeo and Juliet, but does the moon wish it were the sun? God, I hope not. I hope it loves everything about its quiet, luminous, reflective moon life. Even if what we’re more accustomed to is the squinty, showy brightness of the sun.

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I think we have a slight tendency to think of our older kids as normal. Not so much normal in the sense of "not-abnormal," but normal in the sense of "the norm." These kids pave the way and set the standards, and the kids that come after can seem strange to us, regardless of the configurations of everybody’s personality. When my 14-year-old was 2 and tantruming, I was mystified because Seventeen had never, ever. “What the...?” I asked, and people responded, “Terrible twos? Not ringing any bells?” Right. But it just seemed so strange.

In your family, it sounds like you might also be on the side of cultural bias toward extroverts (which it sounds like A is) and against introverts (which it sounds like M might be). Parents don’t tend to worry about extroverts — those engaging kids who always seem to have a red carpet rolling out in front of them as they move through the world. But the quiet kids, the less social kids, the kids in their rooms with a book and the cat... those kids can make us fret.

I wonder if job No. 1 might be acceptance: a full and deep understanding that M is OK in her differentness from A. And then you can move forward from this place to see if there are ways that you can make sure she’s happy while understanding at the same time that her happiness might look different from what you’re used to. She might already be happier than you know. But of course, she might not be.

Your question troubled my kids a little bit to be honest. Seventeen said, “It’s sort of delicate because you don’t want to draw attention to it. Or set it up as a comparison. You don’t want to make it seem like what you’re going for is the younger kid getting to be more like the older kid. That could feel really shitty.” Indeed. (Not that you were planning to communicate this, by the way.)

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Seventeen also remembered that he didn’t really do anything outside of school when he was 12; he didn’t see friends, participate in any clubs or teams or really do much of anything besides hang out with us. “Honestly?” he said, “It would have been an issue if you guys had made me feel like it was an issue. Which you didn’t. The facts themselves don’t really make up a problem.”

Everybody felt like it might be nice for your family if M got some more one-on-one time so she could shine a little more brightly. Fourteen thinks this is a bit of a delicate proposition. “See if there’s a way that, without making some annoying scheduled mom-time or whatever, you could try to spend more time just the two of you. Maybe there are activities she might be interested in or a movie she wants to see that A doesn’t. She might even have interests you don’t know about.”

Seventeen thinks that the key is keeping it light. “Not, 'You never do anything, so I signed you up for computer class,' but just going out to dinner or something. Something fun. Something that makes her feel more confident.” Also, Fourteen thinks that you should get a dog. Because a dog always thinks you’re great.

More: Raising an Extroverted Kid Is So Much Harder When You're an Introvert

“It’s OK to be different” seemed to be their main message for you and M both. And Fourteen summed it up kind of perfectly, I thought: “This kid is pretty young,” she said. “Think of a year from now — everything will be different, and you can reevaluate it then. Kids go through phases. It could resolve itself.” And you won’t even need your eclipse glasses anymore.

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