Join 3,553 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Dealing with a Toxic Sibling
December 3, 2012 6:19 AM   Subscribe

How do you deal with a toxic sibling who ruins every family event?

My sister lives next door to my parents. Anytime I or my siblings go to visit my parents, she is there. The problem is that she has a toxic personality and manages to ruin every family get-together, big or small, by offending people and acting outrageously.

Examples of problematic behavior are:
1. Treating her children in a way that makes everyone uncomfortable. We don't want to "tell her how to raise her kids" (she is VERY touchy about this) but her parenting methods include physical punishments, outbursts of explosive anger and emotional manipulation.
2. Seeking the negative attention she gets when she makes offensive jokes and insulting comments.
3. Making conversation by cornering individuals and then ranting at them about whatever topic she's fixated on at that time. (She often becomes fixated on ideas she's come up with about conspiracies in the world. My parents report that sometimes she'll come over in the pre-dawn hours needing to talk to them about the ideas.)

My siblings and I are very concerned about her behavior and wonder if she is mentally ill; however, she can act "normally" (even charmingly!) when she chooses to. This is how she maintains a life in the world outside of our family.

There are essentially two parts to my question:
1. What strategies can I employ in-the-moment when the family is together and my sibling is causing a scene?
2. How can my family address my sibling's troubling behavior going forward without my sibling feeling attacked or controlled by the rest of the group?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Can you invite your parents to visit you, without including your sister and her kids?
posted by Carol Anne at 6:22 AM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


you agree among a few of you on a strategy to dis-engage and distract when one becomes the object of this disturbing activity.

Each member of the smaller group agree that if X gets conered y will go and ask her something, or Z will invite her to look at something and do something. Constant disruption.

But she must never know that you've agreed on this. So vary it as much as is needed.

she will either get really angry and her behaviour will almost necessitate a referral to a mental health practitioner or she will get frustrated and ease off.

at very least you won't feel you're alone in dealing with this.
posted by Wilder at 6:25 AM on December 3, 2012


The best strategy is to keep a sense of humor. That doesn't mean that you make fun of her but if she starts in on a tirade then interrupt with a "that reminds me of this..." joke. Becoming angry or defensive most likely is going to fall into her trap and isn't good for your mental health.
posted by JJ86 at 6:26 AM on December 3, 2012


How does your sister behave when you're out in public? Like, if she comes over and starts acting weird, could you suggest a trip to the mall/local restaurant/park/whatever? Would she come? If she came, would she be better behaved in public than she is at home?

In addition to inviting your parents over to your home, could you meet with your parents (and whatever other family) in a public place without your sister, rather than meeting them at their house? Obviously this is more expensive, and it would be annoying to have to hang out at McDonalds instead of in your parents home, but eh, it's not working the way it is.
posted by mskyle at 6:40 AM on December 3, 2012


Can you meet your parents at a restaurant for lunch/dinner, or schedule some kind of activity with them so you get some time with just them? I think that if you had quality time with just your parents, it would be easier to deal with your sister when she is around.

The kids issue is so tough - it's really hard to see children being treated poorly. If by physical punishment and anger outbursts, you mean things like spanking as punishment and yelling when upset, that's terrible to be around, but I can't think of anything you can do except be there for the kids and spend as much time as possible with them. Tell them you'll always be there for them, always listen to them, and mean it. If by physical punishment & anger outbursts you mean hitting the kids in anger, calling CPS is probably appropriate.

I think it would be great if your sister had a mental health evaluation, but my guess based on your description is that she's not going to like that idea. If she happens to be religious, perhaps she would be willing to talk to someone at her place of worship, though?
posted by insectosaurus at 6:46 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


1. Treating her children in a way that makes everyone uncomfortable. We don't want to "tell her how to raise her kids" (she is VERY touchy about this) but her parenting methods include physical punishments, outbursts of explosive anger and emotional manipulation.

Tell her that her disciplining her children in front of you makes you uncomfortable. Then say nothing more but repeating this no matter what she says.

2. Seeking the negative attention she gets when she makes offensive jokes and insulting comments.

Don't engage her on any of this. Again, be a broken record. "That makes me uncomfortable."

3. Making conversation by cornering individuals and then ranting at them about whatever topic she's fixated on at that time. (She often becomes fixated on ideas she's come up with about conspiracies in the world. My parents report that sometimes she'll come over in the pre-dawn hours needing to talk to them about the ideas.)

Don't engage her on this. Just silence or a "Hey, how about that? Dad, did you see the sale they have at Sears?".

Just a pattern of negation. She won't like it, but so what? She can't force you to engage.
posted by inturnaround at 6:52 AM on December 3, 2012


1. What strategies can I employ in-the-moment when the family is together and my sibling is causing a scene?
"Sister, I love you but your behavior is inappropriate."
"Sister, I love you but you need to stop yelling at/hitting your kids."
"Sister, I love you but you need to stop causing this scene."
"Sister, I will not discuss this with you until you calm down and speak respectfully to me."

Repeat as necessary.

Essential components of your strategy: consistency/united front/love and compassion.

Best case scenario: you are completely consistent and the rest of your family is on board and does the same thing ... it will get worse before it gets better, but it will get better.

Worst-case scenario: you are inconsistent so she knows she can wear you down, and/or your family is not all in so she knows she can divide and conquer.
2. How can my family address my sibling's troubling behavior going forward without my sibling feeling attacked or controlled by the rest of the group?
You can't control how your sister feels. You don't have to gang up on her but you are within your rights to say "I don't want to hear this. I don't want to talk about this. Stop."
1. Treating her children in a way that makes everyone uncomfortable. We don't want to "tell her how to raise her kids" (she is VERY touchy about this) but her parenting methods include physical punishments, outbursts of explosive anger and emotional manipulation.
Who cares that she is touchy about input from others on her child-rearing. You are those kids' family and their mother is abusing them. Step up, those kids need you! You are basically saying, even though I'm an adult and I can walk away any time I want, I'd rather she abuse her kids than cause a scene with me. THOSE CHILDREN NEED YOUR HELP.
posted by headnsouth at 7:05 AM on December 3, 2012 [19 favorites]


My solution to dealing with a brother-in-law that was that person at every family gathering (fueled by alcohol usually) was to, initially, leave and eventually stop going to family gatherings if he was going to be present.

You only have control over your choices.

If she is being physical towards her children, you should NOT be taking your children (if you have any) into that environment.
posted by HuronBob at 7:07 AM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


My siblings and I are very concerned about her behavior and wonder if she is mentally ill

Several people have made good suggestions which hinge on isolation or mitigation strategies. However if the problem is that your sister IS mentally ill/in need of therapy then solving that problem would lead to the best outcome for everybody.Exactly how to go about that is tricky - but perhaps these notes would help.
posted by rongorongo at 7:16 AM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Is there a particular family member that she has a good rapport with that can act as a mediator and explain how her behavior impacts the family in a tactful way? This one on one approach is better than a sort of family intervention.

Has your sibling always behaved in this way or is this newish behavior? It does sound like she is suffering from some type of mental health issue with the manic conspiracy theories, etc.

To me, if there is no one that can actually have a heart to heart with her on this, the treatment of the children the most troubling issue here that needs to be addressed. Is the father around? I'm not sure the best way to address this other than to support the children as incidents occur.

I have dealt with much more minor family issues, but controlling the only thing I can- my reaction. First I had to let go of a lot of my resentment and baggage about the pattern of interaction. Then I was able to be firm and, admittedly somewhat cold, but true to myself with my troubling family members.

For me these dynamics are usually about the person pulling you into their own mind-state, if you are able to resist this emotional manipulation you can respond to them straightforwardly and not play the game. This may or may not effect their behavior and if it does it will take some time. If she does not seek help, all you can do is protect your own mental health.
posted by abirdinthehand at 7:18 AM on December 3, 2012


You need to stop interacting with her when she is verbally abusive to you. Say "That's offensive", then walk away from the jokes. Say "I have to go [do something else]" and walk away partway through her rants. Stop engaging. Leave if you have to.

It sounds also like she needs help -- is she married? can her spouse help? -- but for the short term, you need to step way back from conversations with OR ABOUT her. It's almost impossible to do this because this kind of thing is so infuriating, especially when it's a sibling, especially when your parents seem to be enabling it and choosing your sister over you. (It took my family a number of years to work this through.)

Any full-family strategies are likely to result in your sister feeling ganged up on because it is essentially true. You need to figure out what strategies might help in the long run, not what strategies can keep the surface peace. I recommend that your parents speak to a therapist of some sort about this.
posted by jeather at 7:28 AM on December 3, 2012


I'm worried about her children. They need to know that what is going on is not normal and their mother is mentally ill or has serious personality problems. Can you help them? Otherwise, they will have years of misery while they figure this out.
posted by 3491again at 7:37 AM on December 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


If you're worried about the children, report her to CPS. There is nothing worse than being a kid, knowing that your parent is being abusive, having other people see it, and having them do nothing.

Take her kids aside individually and tell them, "Your mom and I have different view about how to discipline kids. I think you're awesome and while kids make mistakes, you don't deserve the yelling and spankings you get. I want you to know that I love you and if you EVER need anything, you can call me and I'll come running."

You're grown, so once you've got the kid squared away, you can address your sister directly.

1. Avoid her. If you can, meet your parents out, or away from their home.

2. If you have a family gathering, feel free to kick her out if she becomes obnoxious. "Lisa, this behavior is inappropriate and I won't tolerate it in my home. Please leave. The kids can stay, Mom and Dad will drive them home. If everyone comes in one car, send them all home.

3. If you are visiting with your parents, first, say, "Lisa, this is inappropriate, and I'm not going to tolerate it. If you can't be civil, I'll leave. Then do it.

Your parents must have their opinions on this, but unless they're willing to act on them, there's not a lot you can do except set an example.

My Mom used to be a yeller and a bit crazy. Once she yelled at me for washing her wool socks. It was probably one of the stupidest arguements I've ever been a side of. I didn't engage. I said, "You know, I appreciate your letting me do laundry at your house, and I'm willing to put your things in with mine. Obviously, you didn't mean to put your wool sock in the load, and there wasn't an awful lot I could have done to figure out that you didn't mean for them to be washed. If you can't speak to me like an adult, I'll take my things and finish up at a laudromat." She continued to scream about the damn socks. I reached into the washer and proceeded to remove my wet clothing. I got it all, put it in the car and went to the laundromat. I didn't speak to her until she apologized. This was a pivotal moment in our relationship because after that I realized (and so did she) that just because we're related, she can't treat me badly.

Standing your ground, and setting your boundaries can be hard, and sometimes you have to be prepared to do things that are pains in the ass, but it is WELL worth it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:02 AM on December 3, 2012 [17 favorites]


She sounds manic to me. Waking your parents up to rant about the Tri-lateral Commission? I don't care how charming she is to the rest of the world, I'd get the kids away from her and have her evaluated.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:33 AM on December 3, 2012


Take her kids aside individually and tell them, "Your mom and I have different view about how to discipline kids. I think you're awesome and while kids make mistakes, you don't deserve the yelling and spankings you get. I want you to know that I love you and if you EVER need anything, you can call me and I'll come running."

This is what I wanted to say. You can't control her behavior towards the kids, but you can certainly give her kids an idea that their environment isn't the only one, and you can hopefully provide a better environment for them.
posted by disconnect at 10:40 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is my aunt. My aunt has several diagnoses (from when she was a teen and on), but never has had an efficient treatment. She is now 68.
My grandparents always tried to ignore her, which only led her to ever more radical attempts to get their attention, so I think this was a wrong strategy. However now, when I and my cousin have taken on the role of adults in the family, I find it difficult to do anything else than ignore her. (I excuse myself by saying I am not her parent). Engaging with her is tiring and leads nowhere.
Incidentally, she was also very dependent on her parents as long as they lived, and always tried to exclude her siblings from their company by acting crazy and / or bullying them. When my grandfather died, my grandmother cut her off completely. She felt she couldn't handle it alone.

My aunt is very charming and beautiful with outsiders - to a point. She has been in huge fights with all of her friends. Mostly they forgive her after a while, like a couple of years.

Re.: the children - a good thing my grandparents and my mother and uncle did was try to have the children over as much as possible, for instance all the holidays. This gave them a lot of peace in their lives.

When I was a child, I loved my aunt very much. She was a fascinating person, and I bore over with her drama and occasional violence (yes). I miss her now.
posted by mumimor at 10:46 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


The behavior sounds erratic enough for me to wonder about a well concealed drug problem. It might be good to try to rule that out.
posted by Vaike at 10:52 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


1. Your sister sounds pretty ill
2. The kids are being abused.

So, what do you do?

I think you should stop worrying about her feelings and focus on getting her help. Getting her help, i.e., acknowledging that she is mentally ill, is probably going to cause upset. It's good the kids have you around to help address this difficult situation.
posted by angrycat at 11:19 AM on December 3, 2012


Yeah, I'm not sure we should be diagnosing this person based on three one-line descriptions of her behavior from a not-disinterested observer.
posted by rhizome at 12:07 PM on December 3, 2012


Like a few others have already pointed out, I agree that your point #3 is suggestive- no, actually, a classic sign of- of underlying mental illness that she absolutely needs to get worked up for, for the sake of her kids. Actually, all the things you mentioned are suggestive of it.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 5:30 PM on December 3, 2012


Does anyone in your family work for the government, schools, etc? If so, they are a "Mandatory Reporter" and you HAVE to turn her in or face possible job loss yourself. Good excuse to use BEFORE she starts abusing her kids. "If X sees you doing anything considered abususive to the children, X MUST turn you in to child welfare." Might curb her.
posted by msleann at 6:29 PM on December 3, 2012


« Older Coming off of a leave of absen...   |  Calling all bourbon and whisky... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.