Can you be a good sister to someone you don't like?
May 3, 2010 11:28 PM   Subscribe

How do I be a good sister, when I don't like her? So much more inside.

She is 20, I am 24. We are opposites in almost all ways: she barely made it through high school, I went on to college. She is skinny, I am pudgy. She has had many boyfriends, I've been dating the same boy for five years. She loves to put on makeup and do her hair, I wouldn't know what to do with lip liner if my life depended on it. It goes on and on.

Last year she moved to California to be with a boy she met online. She told everyone she was going out there for a week with a friend and said friend's family. She never came home, and didn't call us for a month. We were frantic with worry, and upset when the truth came to light. Every few weeks since moving there, she would call home in a fit of tears saying life was hard and she wanted to come home, she was buying a ticket home....but she's never actually came home. I chalked it up to PMS-y hormones, but the drama was too much for my father and he's all but washed his hands of her.

A week ago, she broke up with the boy and flew back. She didn't make any contact with me, and I didn't make any with her. I saw her for the first time today when I stopped by my father's house to do some laundry, and I was shocked. Her clothes were hanging off her frame, her upper arms were thinner than her elbows. She was always skinny, but healthy. Now she looks like a holocaust victim. I immediately voiced my concern and she brushed me off and said no she's eating, really she's not too thin, etc etc.

I pulled aside my father and asked him in private if she was indeed, as sick as she looks. He is sure she is seriously depressed, he said she does nothing but cry and what she needs now is a Big Sister to support her. She isn't on his insurance any longer, and has none of her own, and has no money to see a doctor. My father isn't the sensitive type (picture a lumberjack, only gruffer), and has said he can't do anything for her at this time other than provide shelter.

He requested that I be a role model, that I do things with her but not buy her anything (to provide her with the lesson that you can't have everything for free). He wants me to be the sister I never was to the girl that was more like a distant cousin than my next of kin.

This is where I come off as a terrible human being. I don't like her. She is shallow, selfish and fake. I think her actions were reprehensible and immature. She regularly stole from me, and owes me a few hundred dollars which I know I'll never see. The kicker was, before she left for California, she spent weeks flirting with my boyfriend while we were in a rough spot, just because she could.

So my question Metafilter: How do I be the sister that she needs when I don't like her, and I don't even know how to be a sister? I really do want to see her be happy and healthy, but I don't really want to be her friend, or spend time with her. I am willing to make sacrifices and fake it, but how do I do that? Should I stop by and braid her hair? Pick up a copy of Twilight and some Jiffypop?

What does being a sister really entail? Private suggestions/questions can be directed to
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Do you love your sister? You don't say if you do or not. There's a big difference between romantic love and familial love, but the one thing that's the same is that, when you love somebody, you feel bad when they're unhappy. Do you feel that way now? Sometimes it's important to acknowledge that you love somebody, even if you don't like every detail about them.

Your list of differences in the beginning of this question doesn't really hit on very much that would make for a bad relationship between two unrelated people. So what if one of you has more education, or likes makeup more, or has a different style of relationships? What do the two of you think about important things in life? There might be a whole lot more similarities and common ground than you expect.

My brother and I are about the same difference in age as you and your sister, and we grew up constantly comparing and contrasting ourselves with one another. I like art, he likes science. I can write, he can play instruments. I didn't give a damn about school, he was a straight A student. I thought his friends were nerds, he thought my friends were snot-nosed hooligans. Everything he liked, I suddenly didn't, and vice-versa. We defined ourselves by our differences. In middle school, when I did a project on my family, I remember talking about my brother like he wasn't even a part of it, just some guy living next door who shared my bathroom, because he spent absolutely no time with me.

Then he went away to college and I was by myself for the first time, and after a year he came back to visit, and suddenly we were friends. It was uncanny. Suddenly we had so much in common! He was that guy with a car who would take me places, and we had the same taste in tv shows, and we liked the same foods, and had the same opinions about Mom and Dad, and he taught me about jazz and I taught him about books and it was delightful! Most importantly, though, we actually began to respect each other.

I'm not saying that you and your sister are in the same situation as my brother and myself. I'm saying that people who are siblings always have a lot more in common with each other than they realize. Sometimes, distance is required to get over the barrier of long-term resentment. You've had that distance, but you're not showing signs of giving your sister a chance.

She's clearly in a bad place. She seems to have regretted a lot of her past decisions. Is it your place to rub her nose in it and continue treating her as you always have? Or is it your place to give her a second chance, if not at friendship, at least at being able to share the things you have in common. I'm not clear on the details of what she's done, but they sound like immature choices made by somebody who refused to accept consequences. Clearly she's in the middle of finally accepting them.

As to what being a sister entails, I'd say everybody's different. You should try to live your life well, and let her in on it, so she has a really good example to go by. Maybe you can ask her why she made the choices she did, and share with her some of the bad choices you've made in the past. Maybe you can see if you can use some connections to get her a job so she can pay you back. Maybe you can let her know that if she needs shelter, she can come sleep on your couch, too. There's lots of options, but they all do entail spending time with her. I bet though that if you do spend time with her, you won't have the worst time of your life.
posted by Mizu at 12:05 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Be honest. Kind, but honest. Don't fake it. Don't hide how you feel about her past behavior, and don't give her a free pass on it. Stick to positive parts where you can. Tell her you want her to be happy and healthy. Tell her you'll do what you can to help her (honestly) when she wants it. (Example... Give her a ride to therapy or work if she needs it, but not just anywhere)

Just being the most positive self you can when you're around her is supporting her. Keeping yourself happy and healthy, will help you support her. Time spent with her might help you understand what is going on with her, but it can be really scary too.

My personal experience was that it was easier for me to think that my sis was just irresponsible and lazy, but when I really looked (mentally reflected and physically saw the state of her house) I wasn't prepared to feel so strongly about the status of her mental health. She was obviously having mental health issues, and the reality of that was heartbreaking. That realization did help me get over anger I had about her behavior... but it lead to fear for her. Things are working out, but it took a long time and a shift in the whole families approach.

Not compromising your values/time/feelings even if it's not what she wants is supporting her. And if there comes a time when she does look to you for real help, do what you can to support her. I think the best help you can give, sisterly and otherwise, is not to enable her destructive behavior, but be there to encourage positive behavior.

You can't force a good sisterly relationship, but looking into your childhood for happy times and memories might help you feel more "sisterly" She probably wasn't always how she is now. Looking at kid pics might help you rekindle some feelings for your sister. Remember that bad choices don't make bad people.
posted by Swisstine at 12:05 AM on May 4, 2010

You don't realize this now, but your sister is a very young 20 year old woman who is in the darkest place that she's ever been in her life. You don't have to like her, but take pity on her, and on yourself and help her now. If you don't you will eventually regret it, and the sins that you believe she has committed against you will come to seem very small and childish. There are so many regrets that we accumulate in our lives, don't create one now.

As Swisstine said above, you don't have to lie to her. Let her know how you feel, but be there for her as much as you can.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:20 AM on May 4, 2010 [26 favorites]

Do you remember any hobbies she had when she was younger? Especially any you might have enjoyed, too? Go do things together that remind you both of happier times.

If there aren't activities you enjoyed together, maybe there's a place- a museum, a favorite restaurant, a park, whatever. Or some family ritual like Friday movie nights. Even if you haven't been there/done that in years, if it's attached to happy memories, it's a good idea.

I'd also suggest having a talk with your boyfriend about how to handle her flirting, if it starts up again; the last thing you need is to feel any sort of resentment towards her. Might be best not to have everyone hang out together for a little while.
posted by nat at 12:34 AM on May 4, 2010

I don't like her. She is shallow, selfish and fake. I think her actions were reprehensible and immature. She regularly stole from me, and owes me a few hundred dollars which I know I'll never see. The kicker was, before she left for California, she spent weeks flirting with my boyfriend while we were in a rough spot, just because she could.

You don't have to be nice to arseholes just because you're related to them. She's an adult. She needs to live with the consequences of her choices just like the rest of us. So, you don't have to lend her any money, you don't have to invite her out with your boyfriend, you don't have to like her, you're not obligated to support her emotionally, you don't have to hang out with her, and you don't have to stick around when she starts whining. Start from there.

Now, what do you actually want to do for her? Is there some aspect of her present suffering that isn't a consequence of her own choices and that you could do something to alleviate? Something that strikes a "there but for the grace of God go I" note for you? Go on from there.
posted by flabdablet at 1:05 AM on May 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

I would start small: stop by where she's living with some groceries, make her a cup of tea and chat about small things that you won't disagree on. She probably knows she has made some big mistakes, so now is probably not the right time to tell her that. I'm just speaking from my own experience. I hope that your relationship improves to a point where you can give her advice and she will take it.

I'm a good sibling and I have good siblings. We don't have massive heart-to-hearts all the time, but we're around for each other. I think that's all you need to provide at this point: just the knowledge that she isn't alone. The fact that you're asking this question already proves that.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:30 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm the oldest of several children, and for whatever reasons at various times in my life I didn't like them. Sometimes it'd be a year. Sometimes a day. But there were times when one of them and I would butt heads and be mortal enemies. But nothing was worse than my relationship with one of my sisters. We had a lot of differences similar to yours until she did a lot of similar, quite frankly, stupid things. Yes, they were stupid. Everybody worried about her. She didn't seem to fully consider consequences of her actions. It was a rough couple of years with her. She got her act together, is doing well, and now for the most part we get along and some of the time like each other.

One week a few years ago, all three of my siblings called me for help with something different. My brother wanted some resume help. My youngest sister wanted me to read over a school paper and edit it. My middle sister, the one I butted heads with, called for some support with crazy wedding stuff. I mentioned my other two siblings having called and asked what on earth was going on that everyone was calling me for something. I wasn't annoyed or bothered --- more whimsically amused. You know what she said? "Well, you're the big sister. We need you."

It's simple, but it's true. It's so hard to reserve judgment in situations like this, and it's hard to be the "good, responsible one" of siblings. But the fact is, your sister needs you, even if she's not saying so. She probably knows this. It's okay if you don't like her that much right now and more than okay that you don't like what she did. But she needs you.

In dealing with her, keep things simple for now. Ask her how she's doing and really do your best to reserve judgment. I know how hard that last piece is. But there's no sides here, except her side to get better and do better and her side not to. Look at it as she's in some form or another more battling with herself than she ever was with you. And that's why she needs you --- to find the ways necessary to stop battling herself. It's okay to be frustrated and angry and annoyed with her. On your own time. In private. Behind closed doors. I found with my sister that if I judged her, she shut down and withdrew. So I moderated my interactions with her to maximize her not shutting down and not withdrawing. I really, truly hated her for what she did to my parents, the worry they caused them unnecessarily, but I and the rest of my family really had to let that go to get anywhere with her.

And though I'm sure it'll be said, it sounds like she may need therapy. Maybe more intensive therapy than mentioned in most AskMes. And if she's as skeleton looking as you say she is, she should see a doctor ASAP.

I wish you the best of luck. It's hard. I hope she's able to conquer whatever is going on with her and that you can eventually be closer.
posted by zizzle at 3:37 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

As much as I don't get along with my sister, as much as I hate being the eldest and the bullshit that goes along with it...I do my duty. That means picking her up from her DUI. That means not telling all and sundry about it to shame her. That means ignoring the bullshit. Particularly when she was younger - Christ, 20 is just a kid. She made douchey mistakes as a kid. She's in a shitty situation and your dad is kinda dickish for putting that guilt trip on you BUT I am always inclined to do my duty. If it means helping my little sister who is obviously sick? I'd do it. On my terms though.
posted by geek anachronism at 4:06 AM on May 4, 2010

I think the key here is not to give more (time, emotional energy, what-have-you)
than you can afford without resentment or without hurting yourself.

Fit your own oxygen mask first - take care of your needs for work, sleep, healthy food, exercise, and time with friends before you start spending time on her.

I'm not saying don't help - I'm just saying, please don't run yourself into the ground helping her. That won't help either of you, that will just result in two people in trouble instead of one.

Don't be afraid to set limits.

"I'll give you a lift to the Dr on Thursday, but Friday is no good for me, I need to spend time with my friends that day."

"I'll help you cook meals, but I won't lend you money."

"I can come over and talk for an hour, but then I need to go home again."

Also, if she starts flirting with your boyfriend again, don't be afraid to tell her

"I love you, and that behaviour is not okay. If you keep flirting with my boyfriend, we will stop spending time with you."
posted by Oceanesque at 4:49 AM on May 4, 2010 [6 favorites]

I'll say some things that I believe are rock solid truths:
-we are not responsible for our families
-we should always encourage everyone to live self directed lives the best they see fit, regardless what we think about their decisions
-the world exists outside your purview, without your permission--it always has and it always will
-pity is a useless and selfish emotion
-spite is just as useless but filled with poison for us and others.
-at some point everyone should take responsibility for all of his or her decisions, good or bad, for better or for worse.
-we do for others because they are people---not because we feel sorry for them, because we feel vindicated, because it gives us a chance to prattle on about our superiority, or because we know better. We do for others because they are people and, as a de-facto standard, they deserve to be treated like humans.

In all things in my life, I refer to that list.

My 5 minute psychoanalysis is thus:
-you are mad at her for taking risks you never wanted to take.
-you do not understand her and feel that she has never wanted to understand you.
-you do not feel like taking the time to help someone who has never showed any interest in you.
-you were secretly jealous of her for a long time. In fact, she was jealous of you too.
-you resent that she has never taken your advice, because you know your advice is correct.
-you resent that she never took your advice but managed to survive without you.

SO--what do you do?
You gingerly step down from your high horse, take your sister by the hand, and reintegrate her into the world. Where you see her as walking away into an abyss, she sees the same thing but worries now that she's completely alone in the world. She's vulnerable to the first pimp, abusive asshat, or other trash who lives explicitly to take advantage of other people, and on top of that you have NO IDEA what happened when she was in California. You do the same thing you'd do for an old high school acquaintance you haven't seen in 10 years, you do the same thing you'd do if a person like her wandered up to you in the street---you do whatever you can, because she's a human and we're all in this together.

And then, 5 or 10 years down the road, she moves on or she doesn't. She thanks you or she doesn't. You're the best friends the world could ever know, or you're not. Ideally she's still alive, maybe she's not. Maybe you're not. The point is that you didn't turn your back out of spite.
posted by TomMelee at 5:35 AM on May 4, 2010 [7 favorites]

Everyone seems to be telling you to drop everything for someone who has betrayed you and shown no regard for you for most of her life. Regardless of the fact that she's your sister, I don't see why you have any responsibility to her.

All that said, if she reached out to you, I would recommend being as supportive and encouraging as you feel comfortable being. But it doesn't appear that she really wants anything to do with you either.

Familial bonds are strong, but they are not (nor should they be) unbreakable. Sometimes things just shake out so that you end up not really liking the people you're related to. And if you don't like them (and in your case, it appears that you do not like or *trust* her) you have no responsibility to see her through this hard time. This is the case with my brother and me. We talk maybe once a year, and while I don't wish him any ill will, we are not friends, we have nothing in common, and we don't really like each other. That's just the way it is.

TomMelee and a couple others in this thread have managed to extrapolate pretty wildly from your question (you're jealous of her?), but I think that the only reason you have for engaging with her at all is to make your parents happy. And, honestly, that's a pretty compelling reason. But if it's not compelling enough for you, just don't do it.
posted by orville sash at 5:56 AM on May 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

Wow, we are a lot alike-I am you, my sister is your sister, and my dad is your dad, all about ten years later. This must be a common family dynamic. (If it helps, she did grow up eventually-at least a little.)

I would say that what you owe her is what you owe any human being whom you know well and whom you can see is in trouble. I do not think an accident of being related means that you have to go above and beyond-but I do think that you ought to think about how you'd feel if your sister kills herself (either actively or through the anorexia) and you might have been able to prevent it. I don't like my sister either, but that would bother me. I would contact your family doctor and seek out some advice on how to get her in touch with free services that might help. I think she needs medical intervention and all you can do there is lead her to water, but at least you will have tried. Be around a bit so that if she decides to open up, she'll do it with you. Tell her that you love her but that she has to help herself. Watch for signs that she is trying to-and if you see them, praise her, just like you would a small child.

Lastly, try not to let the anger get to you. She is only 20-of course she is immature. If we were all held to the obnoxious behaviors we exhibited at 20, many of us would be locked up.
posted by supercapitalist at 6:42 AM on May 4, 2010

Do you have a mom in the picture?

I would tell your sister that you can be there for her if she needs it, but you don't really owe her anything. She may not want you as a role model anyway. 20 is young, but it's old enough not to do stuff that stupid. My sister is 20 and we don't get along that well, but she doesn't steal from me and lie to me. If she did, I wouldn't really feel inclined to help her in any way.
posted by ishotjr at 6:52 AM on May 4, 2010

he said she does nothing but cry and what she needs now is a Big Sister to support her

That's an interesting bit of buck-passing on his part, given that he "has said he can't do anything for her at this time other than provide shelter."

If we're doing the five-minute psychoanalysis thing, I'd say she's depressed because she's just discovered she's responsible for her own happiness: her father is distant, her sister doesn't like her, and whatever was going on in California is over. She's feeling alone. And that a lot of this acting out all along has probably been the only way she knows to get attention.

For you to now suddenly go in all fakey-friend and supportive Role Model would just reinforce this. Stick with honesty. You're not her friend. She knows this. You do care about her and want her to be happy and healthy; let her know this. (If she's verging on anorexia, you and your dad need to get together and find her some medical help, insurance or not.) She's not alone in the world; let her know this too. But she's responsible for her own actions and for her own happiness.
posted by ook at 7:06 AM on May 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't blame you for feeling the way you do, but your sister is a very young women in a very bad place. I recommend that you do try to help her in whatever ways you reasonably can. She may surprise you by growing into someone very interesting, and you may surprise yourself by discovering how much you can change the way you feel.

I'd concentrate on the small, practical things you can do to help your sister. I agree with your father that you should not give or even loan her money, but there are other things you can do that will cost little or nothing and that won't take up much time. For instance, you can look up information on free counselling resources in the area, give her the contact information and encourage her to get some help. Talk to her about what she wants to do next, such as what kind of a job she'd like to get, and help her think of ways to work towards that. Don't try to hard to force her confidence, or lecture her. Just spend time with her and nuturing a relationship, and she'll likely naturally come to confide in you.

Rather than focusing on the fact that you don't like her and have nothing in common, try to find or create commonalities. Most of my family finds my whole way of thinking and lifestyle pretty foreign, but we all like to work with our hands, so I concentrate on that. Maybe you'd like going swimming together, or watching and mocking cheesy horror movies, or making dinner together once a week. And try not to be dismissive of her interests, abilities and opinions. Treat her respectfully and like an equal as much as possible. And ask her to do stuff for you sometimes. Heck, unless you are completely averse to the idea of ever wearing makeup, you can probably score a very worthwhile free makeup lesson.

Do set some limits. Safeguard your belongings so she can't steal from you, and if she flirts with your boyfriend, she should be pulled aside and told it's not cool, and if she refuses to mend her ways in that respect, see the two of them separately until you have her word she'll behave herself. Don't let her absorb all your free time. It's not healthy for any relationship to be completely one-sided, and if you don't insist on consideration from her it'll just enable her to go on being selfish and spoiled.
posted by orange swan at 7:11 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

It doesn't sound to me like she needs a big sister as a role model right now. It sounds like she needs a mental health professional. There are low- and no-cost options for this--try starting with any universities in your area that have mental health centers (therapy would likely be with students and recent grads completing their training under supervision).

You're not a terrible person for disliking someone who has betrayed you multiple times. Your sister isn't a nice person. You don't need to like her. Clearly, you're concerned about her, and I think that's a sign that you're actually being quite a gracious person--this shallow, foolish person who has betrayed your trust is in pain and in danger and you recognize that. You want to do the right thing.

I think your father has a poor or naive understanding of the right thing to do here. He should not be expecting you to somehow rescue her. There may be some things you can do, but you would be wise to find a way to be part of a larger support system rather than feeling responsible for her.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:11 AM on May 4, 2010 [7 favorites]

I am an individual who, like your sister, has made some horrible, self-destructive, hurtful choices in the past. The people who have meant the most to me -- who have helped the most without taking responsibility for me -- are those who didn't write me off as useless or a "bad person," because they believed I was capable of making better choices.

So, do you believe your sister is capable of making better choices?

Go from there.
posted by trunk muffins at 7:43 AM on May 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

If she looks so bad it scares you, then she has something more going on than just being sad.

She has an eating disorder, or she's got an addiction, or something. Something pretty rough.

You can't love people out of these things. Trying to do so is called codependence. Honestly, I'd check out resources aimed at families of addicts, like Al Anon. The temptation is to either cut yourself off completely or to take her life on as your second job, and neither one is a good option. You've got to find some way to (a) take care of yourself, and (b) offer help that is actually helpful, like supporting her in whatever kind of professional treatment she needs.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:33 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

"She is 20" ... "She is shallow, selfish and fake."

Well, there's hope she'll grow out of it.

"She isn't on his insurance any longer, and has none of her own, and has no money to see a doctor."

The recent health reform legislation allows parents to keep their kids on their insurance until age 26. So your dad could look into re-adding her as a dependent?

If she's that scary-thin, she probably needs professional medical and/or psychiatric help.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:15 PM on May 4, 2010

Jacqueline: "The recent health reform legislation allows parents to keep their kids on their insurance until age 26. So your dad could look into re-adding her as a dependent?"

I *think* that some of the clauses in that bill don't take effect until 2014.

FWIW, your sister may already be aware of how you feel. My half-sister has always disliked me, and believe me, I have been painfully aware of this since I was a child. In that case, whenever she was "nice" to me, I basically figured it was because she wanted something out of our dad. Well, when I was older, anyways. When I was younger and she was "nice" to me, it got my hopes up unfairly that my sister actually cared about me and wanted to be around me.

TomMelee: "-you do not feel like taking the time to help someone who has never showed any interest in you."

Perhaps I'm cynical, but I have given up on all the family members who have never shown any interest or care about me. We're basically strangers who, once a year at the family reunion, say "hi how are you," and nothing more. Some of my family members are quick to cry that blood is thicker than water, but my friends care a lot more about me than most of my family. I am not saying that you should give up on your sister, OP, but it is your choice.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:22 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am completely distant from both of my sisters, who, in many ways, are my polar opposite.

That said, I have always had the stance of "You can ALWAYS talk to me. I will never judge you and I will always love you." They have, very rarely, reached out to me individually. Whatever they tell me or ask me for help with, I take seriously. If it's a secret, nobody who knows them will ever hear it from me.

Other than that, we keep our distances but are polite. We see each other at family gatherings and send cards, etc. None of the three of us regularly interact or speak. However, that said, we are always family, even if we have ZERO in common (or even when one of them has made me angry, or vice-versa).

You don't have to be a best friend to be a sister. But the description above sounds disturbing. Are you sure she's not on drugs? I only ask because your description indicates that she has behaved in ways that are irrational and life-threatening. Or, worse, she's trying to force you and your father to give her the attention she believes she deserves by destroying herself. This is manipulation. Your father is giving her the "tough love" approach but he's really passing the parenting buck onto you. (If he was really done with her, she'd be living in the street.) His allowing her to come home has given her the message that this kind of behavior is okay. It's not. However, don't let his inability to make a decision force YOU into the role of parent and decision maker. (You might want to talk to him about this - not making a decision forces others to make it for you. It's not a nice position to be in.)

And think about your sister for a minute. Not as "sister" but as if you were watching this on A&E and she was a complete stranger. Imagine how she must feel about herself - REALLY feel - if she's acted the way she has and you're not filtering it through sibling-rivalry lens. To illustrate:

You went to college. She didn't. Maybe she was so afraid she'd fail and was sick of competing with you in school that she focused on what she thought she'd excel at: being thin and playing up her looks while they last.

You and your father have a strong, healthy relationship. She clearly does not have that connection with either one of you. She felt so alone and unhappy (FOR WHATEVER REASON, which probably has NOTHING to do with you or your father) that she ran away to follow what she thought was "real love" on her terms. That's what 20-year-old girls do. They define themselves by external affection and validation, primarily from men.

Your sister may have an addiction, eating disorder, mental illness, or have been sexually abused or otherwise victimized as a child. These behaviors are signs of her acting out in response to some kind of prior trauma or current mental instability.

If you are a straight shooter with her, she might open up to you. If not you, is there a trusted mutual friend you can have speak with her? Otherwise, she's bound to run away again, disappear, possibly become hospitalized due to malnourishment or worse. It's NOT your responsibility to parent her. It's NOT your responsibility to save her from herself. I understand completely your attitude; again, like other posters, I am sickeningly familiar with this sort of relationship.

Should you give her the "you can tell me what's wrong, I love you no matter what, I won't judge you and I won't tell dad" talk, HONOR ANYTHING YOU AGREE TO. That said, if it comes out that she's suffering from any of the above problems, ASK HER IF SHE WANTS HELP FIRST. If she doesn't, there's nothing you can do. (She's 20. You can't kick her out. She can't be committed unless she's a danger, etc.)

IF SHE WANTS HELP, see what options are available before getting your father involved and discuss them with your sister first.

If you can get over your past issues and establish trust NOW, you may have a relationship as sisters in the future. If she lies, is abusive, steals, disappears... she's 20. She's an adult. Do what you can to forgive her, yourself, your father, whomever. Families are hard, and you have my sympathies.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 4:15 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Reading the comments above, what really stands out is the part about being a straight shooter and being honest with her. Your dad is asking you to be something you're not, and you offer to be fake, and I think you should not do that.

When I came back from some long trip to California after a break-up at approximately age 20, I felt so lost in the world. Being something normal, being who you really are, could help her get grounded again. Here's what I think is real for you:
- you're mad at her for good reasons, so you should tell her (and then forgive her)
- you're worried about her health, so you might want to help her find some resources
- you've been willing to cut her some slack about what struck you as "PMSy hormones"
- you're perplexed by how different you are and haven't quite found an enjoyable way to hang out
posted by salvia at 6:32 PM on May 4, 2010

I think, at the very least, you need to stop telling her all your opinions about the awful things you think she is or has done. She doesn't need more judgment from family right now.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:35 PM on May 4, 2010

Jacqueline: "The recent health reform legislation allows parents to keep their kids on their insurance until age 26. So your dad could look into re-adding her as a dependent?"

I *think* that some of the clauses in that bill don't take effect until 2014.

This is one of the two clauses that take effect immediately, for what it's worth.
posted by timory at 6:43 PM on May 4, 2010

The more I think about this, the more it seems like this: Your sister rebelled; your gruff dad cut her off emotionally; now it falls to you to be an idealistic "big sister;" you're asking how to live up to an ideal you don't understand and doesn't feel right; you're imagining we'll judge you as a terrible human being for not wanting to; you're saying some harsh things about her actions. Meanwhile, she might be anorexic. It sounds like there a lot of "shoulds," judgment, and perfectionism in your family, and a lot of penalty for not being perfect.

Given that, her running away and general "bad behavior" might be an understandable coping mechanism. Did she want out of trying to do what she "should?" Were her calls more about her having second thoughts about having run away? Does your father's decision to cut her off impact your own willingness to be associated with her? Do you need to stay on a particular side of the "be good" / "rebel" dividing line?

Regardless of all that, is your father actually asking you to do more because he can't do anything beyond provide shelter? That seems somewhat inappropriate, and I wonder if it would help you to explicitly reject it. "Hey, I don't even understand what it means to be a Big Sister. You know we're more like distant cousins," or even, "I know you're angry at her, but I can't pick up your slack or be all the family love a person needs. I have my own feelings about what went down, like that money she "borrowed"? I'm trying to get over it and find a way to love her despite all that, and I actually think she needs a Father as much as a Big Sister."

Also, there is something interesting going on here: "she's never actually came home." A mixture of verb tenses, set against the fact is that she now actually has come home. I don't know if that's a simple typo or if it suggests that her repeated failure to come home earlier somehow leaves you feeling that even now she still hasn't come home.

Sorry if all this Psych 101 is way off the mark. If it's not, this is all totally the kind of family baggage people go to therapy to get over. (Now it's a true Human Relations AskMe thread, with someone having suggested you get therapy. ;) )
posted by salvia at 6:46 PM on May 4, 2010

I'm going to go out on a crazy limb here and say you don't have to be a good sister. That doesn't mean you're allowed to be a bad sister, I'm saying, let go of whatever ideas you have about what a sister relationship should look like, and what your duties as a big sister are supposed to be (I know - it doesn't help when dad is wanting you to be a "big sister").

IMO, your questions about how to be a sister when you don't like her, don't know how, don't want to be, and the answers (if there could even be answers to those questions) aren't really going to help her problem. The problem is as follows: she quite possibly has an eating disorder and is depressed. She can't access dad's insurance, has none of her own, and no money to see a doctor. She doesn't need a Big Sister to support her, which is what - cry on your shoulder? Whine about all her problems? No, she needs resources so she can get professional help, and that's where you and your dad, and any friends that she has really have to figure out what's available in your area, figure out how much it costs, figure out how to get the money together and how the new legislation might help. None of this will work if she doesn't want to get help, though. But maybe gather it all together and if she wants to access it, it will be there.

You want to see her happy and healthy, and you don't have to be her friend, or spend a lot of time with her. Making sacrifices and faking it are NOT going to help, btw. Focus on what you can do to help her along to health and happiness - this means treating her like a human being, making sure that the responsibility for her health and happiness lies with her, that if she wants help, she can come to you and you can point her in the right direction. Does she have any friends that you could talk to to get on board? I would limit your time spent with her to about an hour a week, during which time you just shoot the shit. No asking about what happened in California, no bringing up past transgressions, focus on now. Ask her if she wants food, if not, don't bring any. If you bring it and she doesn't eat it, don't hold it against her. Keep it for lunch the next day or something. Even if all you do is sit and not talk for an hour, so what. The point is to not pressure her into anything because it's just going to backfire. She has to make her own choices and pressuring her is not going to help her realize that. Maybe all the sitting around and not talking will finally help her decide to open up a bit, or not. But you cannot control her actions.

I think the best thing that you can do for yourself and your sister is let it all go - i.e. your differences, her past behaviour, etc. Holding onto that stuff doesn't help you or her get to health and happiness. I'd strongly recommend that you look into getting support for yourself (and dad) too, as you deal with having a family member that has mental health issues. I'm thinking that there must be online support groups, books that you can read, and therapy, too! And maybe watching Intervention on A&E might help too - you'll learn how having one "sick" family member impacts the entire family and how the family enables the behaviour, and therefore, can intervene.
posted by foxjacket at 7:40 PM on May 4, 2010

*Clarification: "Ask her if she wants food, if not, don't bring any. If you bring it and she doesn't eat it, don't hold it against her."

If she wants food and you bring it, and she doesn't eat it, don't hold it against her.
posted by foxjacket at 9:56 PM on May 4, 2010

If you want to be there for your sister, consider this:

"Be there" can mean all sorts of things, but in its simplest form it means "be physically there". I would focus on doing things together that do not end in headbutting. It doesn't matter how stupid these things are (like watching silly movies). Be there, be yourself and be healthy. And do this regularly, to build up trust.

"What must I do, to tame you?" asked the little prince.

"You must be very patient," replied the fox. "First you will sit down at a little distance from me--like that--in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day . . ."

The next day the little prince came back.

"It would have been better to come back at the same hour," said the fox. "If, for example, you come at four o'clock in the afternoon, then at three o'clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o'clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you . . . One must observe the proper rites . . ."

The Little Prince
posted by Omnomnom at 1:35 AM on May 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

Anonymous, it's not that I can't see your point of view, it's that I can't stop thinking that a humble application of "there but for the grace of God go I" would not go amiss here.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:10 PM on May 28, 2010

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