But I didn't get anyone pregnant when I was 5!
June 25, 2011 3:48 PM   Subscribe

Help me figure out how to be the best brother/guardian/not-quite-father to my 16 year old sister following our parents' death.

Backstory: early 20s, male, queer, eldest of three children. Our father passed away 5 years ago and our mother passed away this past winter. I was listed as de facto guardian for my siblings in my mother's will. Luckily, my brother just turned 18, is well-adjusted and will be going to university in the fall. He has also bonded quite strongly with our uncle (who has been helping me with the estate and other legal matters) so I feel "off the hook" with regards to him.

My sister is another matter. She and I have never been close to our large age difference and I feel that she grew up resenting the bond that my brother and I formed by virtue of having similar interests, being closer in age and both being boys.

For many reasons, I am unable to actually have my sister live with me at this time (frankly, it would drive me crazy and I need to focus on my studies); as a result, she is living with family friends who have not raised a teenager before. My sister is not very well adjusted for a 16 year old and often has bouts of immaturity such as temper tantrums, crying to get what she wants, insulting and swearing at authority figures (she once got mad and told our terminally ill mother to "just die already" and never apologized for it).

She also is the typical book-brilliant-people-dumb nerdy kid, which gets her into a lot of awkward situations with classmates. She has been heavily bullied since I can remember. She does not take responsibility for her actions ever, which makes it very hard to reason with her or talk these issues out. I also have no idea what our mother taught her about safer sex but I worry that her self-esteem issues could lead her to make some poor decisions later on if she's not properly educated (though she insists that she doesn't have any interest in dating/boys/girls right now). If I so much as try to mention any of this, she starts crying or screams and runs up to her room and slams the door.

In contrast, her academics are very strong and she is engaged in more extra-curriculars than I ever was at her age. However, she seems extremely bitter and pessimistic about things in general. I have not seen any signs of self-harm but she may have an unhealthy relationship with food.

So I suppose my questions are:
1)Should I even try to address these things with my sister? We're 5 years apart so it's not like I have that much more experience than she does but I used to be a lot like her when I was younger (12-14) and I want to try to give her the tools she needs to keep herself safe (I know trying to get her to be less of a brat is a lofty ambition). I feel like the responsibility falls to me as she hasn't bonded with her new "family" (yet) and our uncle hasn't been able to get through to her either.
2) Assuming the responsibility does fall to me, how should I go about this? What should I try to tackle, what should I avoid altogether?
3) If anyone has any other advice about how to handle a teenaged girl without going completely bonkers, I'd appreciate it.

I feel I should also note that I do adore my little sister and I want her to be happy and healthy. If my list of concerns seems callous it's because I am extremely frazzled by suddenly having her be my responsibility and I have no idea where to start. If I am misguided in my concerns, do correct me.
posted by buteo to Human Relations (41 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
My sister is not very well adjusted for a 16 year old and often has bouts of immaturity such as temper tantrums, crying to get what she wants, insulting and swearing at authority figures (she once got mad and told our terminally ill mother to "just die already" and never apologized for it).

For a 16 year old whose father died when she was 11 and whose terminally ill mother died when she was 15 or 16--and who, for reasons I can imagine and understand, has likely had little to no help with this--she sounds pretty normal. She's been traumatized. She's grieving.

However, she seems extremely bitter and pessimistic about things in general.

Again, of course she does. Her grief just manifests differently than yours does.

She must feel terribly alone. Does she have anyone to talk to? Could you help her find a therapist?
posted by liketitanic at 3:54 PM on June 25, 2011 [24 favorites]

And I'm sorry that you've been thrust into a parental role, too, OP. I'd also find some solid resources for your own support and self-care if you haven't already.
posted by liketitanic at 4:01 PM on June 25, 2011 [9 favorites]

I think you, your brother, and your sister need some group/family counseling. It sounds like there are a lot of unresolved issues that could drive big wedges between all three of you if left without any working through.

As to custody, you definitely need some professional help figuring that out.
posted by xingcat at 4:03 PM on June 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

I feel I should also note that I do adore my little sister and I want her to be happy and healthy. If my list of concerns seems callous it's because I am extremely frazzled by suddenly having her be my responsibility and I have no idea where to start.

She should know that you are responsible for her - get her living with you ASAP. I would feel uncared for if I was grieving away from the one who was supposed to be taking care of me.
posted by Drama Penguin at 4:03 PM on June 25, 2011 [15 favorites]

Nthing liketitantic a hundred times. Maybe not a (only) therapist (therapist implies she's broken and is some who is paid to talk to her) but also some older female role models - she sounds terribly alone. Its at this age that girls both fight terribly and get very close to their mothers and she must miss her beyond words. Also, try to set up a couple days / nights a week where you do something with your sister - brunches on saturday / tuesday night dinners... she needs to know that you are there (that you care, that she's not a burden but a joy) for her and there to stay (she must be terrified of losing you as well).
posted by zia at 4:05 PM on June 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

Seconding a therapist. This girl needs somebody to talk to. Preferably a woman.

Do you have any real close female relatives or close friends who can "adopt" her as a little sister? That age she really needs somebody to talk to about girl things.

Take her to the grocery store, give her money and tell her to go buy all the "feminine products" she needs for the month. Stay in the car. Repeat monthly. Buy her Advil and a heating pad.
posted by TooFewShoes at 4:08 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nthing dramapenguin as well - if you can, get her living with you. The weekly brunches and dinners are a stopgap. (but if you are living together take the time to do those too!).

Also, given hormones, the immense amount of grief, and being separated from the family and the family home, to say nothing of being bullied at school, I would hesitate to characterize her as 'troubled' (umbrella term for all the behaviours you describe), I would call her instead 'amazing' for keeping it together enough to do well on the academics and do all the extracurriculars.

One last thought, the acting out may in part be because she is NOT living with you.
posted by zia at 4:11 PM on June 25, 2011 [8 favorites]

Good for you, stepping up and caring about her.

(I was the youngest of three, and sixteen when my mother died; I had an older sister who stepped up. It was only decades later that I realized how tough this situation was on her, too.)

All the advice I have for you is that it's a tightrope: you need to inspire some self-control and discipline, without being overbearing and driving her into teenaged rebellion against authority.

What worked in my case (and YMMV) is to sit down and talk to her as an adult; appeal to her reason, and outline some of the possible consequences of fucking up. Does she want to be treated like a responsible adult, or does she want to fall into the custody of CPS? It's largely up to her.

In my case, I was able to see the wisdom of behaving myself.

But seconding what drama penguin says: if it's at all possible, consider the possibility of arranging your life to have her live with you for the next couple of years.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 4:11 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

My advice is premised on the assumption that her current caregivers are appropriate guardians and that she has some kind of official arrangement regarding who is responsible for her care. If that is not the case: fix it now. She needs a home, not just a place to live.

Teenagers kind of suck, even when they're not dealing with family tragedy. Teenage girls' suckiness often manifests in temper tantrums, crying to get what they want, saying searingly awful things and not apologizing, etc. Nothing you've mentioned here strikes me as especially unusual for a teenage girl going through a really hard time. It doesn't excuse her bad behavior or mean that she doesn't need to learn better coping strategies, but my point is just that she's not abnormal.

Unless you begin to actually act as her guardian*, just be present in her life without trying to parent her or teach her or anything like that. Let her current guardians handle the parenting issues. You just be there for her. Take her out, just the two of you, for lunch or coffee or a movie. If she's sad, listen. If she's angry, listen. Stop trying to talk to her about the things you think are important. She's not ready to listen to you yet. Build trust with her. Right now, it sounds like you and she don't have the kind of trusting relationship that would allow you to be a parent figure for her.

If she says something insulting or mean to you, deal with it--just that one thing, just in the moment it happens--by saying, "It really hurts when you talk to me that way," or "That's a pretty rude thing to say," or whatever appropriately captures how you feel in reaction to what she said. Don't make it about how she is in general, or how she should act. If she needs to learn people skills, she'll learn them when you lovingly set and enforce boundaries. She will be much more resistant to learning from you if you have a pattern of taking some particular thing she does and trying to make a "teaching moment" out of it.

*This is not a critique of your current arrangements. If she is being cared for, advised, and supported by kind and loving guardians, I don't think she needs to be living with you. But you can't have it both ways. You can't both have her out of your hair and expect to be able to parent her. If you are not acting as the guardian responsible for her in your parents' place, you need to relate to her as a sibling, more more like a friend or peer, rather than as a parent.
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:18 PM on June 25, 2011 [41 favorites]


I wish I had advice to offer you, but it might help if you provided more information.

Assuming you are 21, what is your current living arrangement? Are you living on-campus, in dorms? If so, are you required to live on/ near campus (if the college is a rural area)? Depending on your college, they may offer summer programs in which high school students can earn credit and learn about the application process. This is one way to bring you two closer together during her junior/senior year. Also, I suggest consulting with your dean or an academic mentor...since she is academically gifted and a legacy, they may offer her a spot in an early-bird program. Perhaps you can take some courses at a local university for a semester or two to be closer to home and better support your sister.
posted by nikayla_luv at 4:20 PM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Both her parents had the gall to die. Her legal guardian can't live with her*. She's been stuck with family friends. She gets bullied at school. That fact that she hasn't climbed up to bell tower with a Hi-Point 9MM Carbine semi automatic rifle with a 4x scope is a minor miracle.

If you two don't have a bond, you need to build one. Find out what her favorite types of movies or books or video games are. Then go see, read or play them with her. She needs someone that'll be there and love her, no matter what. She needs someone to laugh with and be herself with that isn't going to bully her or die on her. Start simple and build on that. Don't try to be a parent so much yet, just be there, find common ground and interests and let trust grow from that.

* Yes, it sucks for you and it's not fair. Welcome to adulthood and being a parent. At some point you may have to decide whether your studies or your responsibilities to your sister come first. You should make that decision before you're forced to make it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:38 PM on June 25, 2011 [25 favorites]

As things stand it sounds like you and your sister have no rapport and she doesn't trust you. IMO your only hope for turning this around is to create rapport with her and bond with her. This won't be accomplished by you stepping in and telling her what to do, and trying to force talks about things that make her uncomfortable before any trust has been established. Here is what I recommend.

1. Always do what you say you are going to do. If you tell her you'll call her on a certain date and time, or see her at a certain time, etc., do so without fail.

2. ASK her what you can do for her, to help her in her life, instead of telling what she needs/what she needs to do. Ask her at least once a week what you can do for her. When she tells you, do those things, as long as they're reasonable/sane, even if you think they're random or silly or unimportant.

3. Tell her you love her and you're proud of her, genuinely and often.

4. When she tells you about her feelings or thoughts, don't argue with them and tell her that they are wrong, or tell her how she should feel or what she should think. Even if you think her feelings are awful, or dumb, etc.

5. When she acts out, YOU need to be mature too. I think it is EXTREMELY counterproductive to make snarky and contemptuous statements about her like "I know trying to get her to be less of a brat is a lofty ambition." And thinking about her as immature, "people-dumb," etc. I think she probably knows very well that you have a degree of contempt for her and think other negative things about her. I don't know about you, but if someone who had contempt for me started trying to step into a guardian role over me and tell me how to run my life, my main thought would be, "Fuck you."

So try to cut that out. You need to learn how to set healthy boundaries. If she says something nasty, tell her it's not acceptable for her to be nasty to you and leave her presence. Same thing if she throws a tantrum. You might need to work with a therapist yourself to learn how to do this well.
posted by Ashley801 at 4:56 PM on June 25, 2011 [23 favorites]

Read "A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius".
posted by roboton666 at 4:56 PM on June 25, 2011 [8 favorites]

Sorry, dude, I think you need to suck it up and find a way to have her move in with you for awhile, at least until she graduates high school. If you need to take a year off of college, so be it. She obviously does not have the resources to deal with this immense loss (understandable! she's sixteen!) and she needs someone to lean on, big time. I was a goddamn mess when I was sixteen and both my parents were living. I was a snotty little spoiled brat and i'm surprised no one shot me in the head.

Look at this as an lifelong investment in both your futures. You have a grand opportunity to be the most awesomest sibling ever, and she gets some stability and a springboard towards adulthood. Take a deep, deep breath and do what you need to do. Ask for support. Get a therapist for her, and maybe for you too (and your brother?).

Who is her legal guardian? Is she in the foster care system? It's a bureaucratic pain in the ass, but you can get money to help support her (assuming you're in the US). If by some chance you are in Wisconsin, I will help put you in touch with the right people.
posted by desjardins at 5:02 PM on June 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

You have a grand opportunity to be the most awesomest sibling ever...

Note to OP: If you decide to live with her now, don't do it expecting thanks or reward, especially from her. Kids don't always work that way. Do because you love her and believe it's the right thing to do.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:05 PM on June 25, 2011 [8 favorites]

I think you've got a good head on your shoulders and a good understanding of the situation, and your own emotional limitations. The picture of limitations that I get also includes that you're not able to feel a whole lot of sympathy for her right now. (In other words, I agree with Ashley801 that your post evinces some contempt, but I was willing to give you the benefit of assuming it was snark due to impatience and exhaustion, rather than actual sneering disgust and disrespect.)

Teenagers are bratty and annoying, but there are people out there with enough detachment to react with love, respect, understanding and forbearance (which is not a criticism of you, who seem to love her despite your stress) -- can you find her one or more of those people? You might call aunts, second cousins, former long-term babysitters, that sort of thing, with lots of hints. "I try to be there for her, but I really think she needs a female in her life," "she's off for summer vacation so she has a lot of time on her hands." Also, maybe you could take up a collection for her to go to some nerdy summer camp? Maybe you all could collectively send her to science camp at a nearby university, to a program where she'll be like a fish in water, meet non-bully friends, and realize that high school will end one day?

Other than that, rather than feeling like you have to DO things, maybe try to feel more like you just have to be open and receptive to her? Just try to listen and be sympathetic, though not fake. Then share a bit about yourself. Don't be like "hi, I'm sudden Authority Man," be more like, "how are you hanging in there, Sis? how is the Smith household treating you? how are your classes? yeah, an A+? you rock! what else? oh, that sucks, I'm sorry they did that! ..." Be less like "let's get together to talk about how to make sure you don't screw up," and more like, "yeah, we're just getting ready to put on a movie, want to come on over? any requests?"
posted by salvia at 5:08 PM on June 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

I was in a similar situation several years ago. My father died suddenly when I was 8, and then my mother passed about a month after I turned 18. I then became the guardian of my 16 year old sister.

It was rough. I think what helped the most was family support and having a sense of stability after the fact. We continued to live in our house afterwards and I went to university while she finished high school. If your sister is staying with family friends, have they agreed to take her in long term? If yes, then that's great. But if this isn't supposed to be a long term solution, helping her to find one might bring her some relief from worrying about where she will live in the next year or two.

Quite frankly I'm at a loss for what to suggest. She is going through the regular teenage girl angst, plus dealing with the loss of her parents. There is no correct way to deal with this and there are no handbooks. Build a stronger relationship with her and be as supportive as you can be, without being overbearing. She needs a stable presence in her life, and you're it.

I'm sorry for your loss. Good luck with taking care of your sis. Feel free to send me a message if you'd like to know more about my own case.
posted by Homo economicus at 5:11 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I might be in the minority here, but I think you should have your sister live with you. She is a teenage girl, which is already hard enough. Her parents died, which is pretty much the worst thing that can ever happen to her. Her MOTHER just died, which is especially horrific for a teenage girl who has yet to come into her own.

I know it's hard, and I know you might think it sucks, and you can't do it, but it's the right, moral, responsible, and unselfish thing to do.

You have the opportunity to help shape this person into adulthood. Don't let her fall through the cracks. She needs her older brother to be there as one of the few members of her family left.

Her making it through this time in her life, next to her older brother who cares so much about her that he'll do anything for her, mean more than anything you have got going on in your life right now. Sorry, that's just the way it is. She's your blood, you have to respect that.

Please please please think about it at least. You have no idea how much it will end up meaning to her.
posted by katypickle at 5:35 PM on June 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm sorry for your loss, buteo. When I was 17, my mother died. I had family, but what really got me through was my support system. That turned out to be my mother's best friends, who grieved and laughed and raged along with me. That is what your sister and yourself need the most right now (and your brother). If you are feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility of your sister, you need to get a good support system going. It sounds like your uncle is doing what he can to help. I'm sure your sister probably feels as bad as you do, and you can help her by showing that you care about her.

What would be the answer to this question: What of my choices will make me feel the best about myself? Often we already know what the answer to the question is, but are scard to make the choice.

Good luck.
posted by annsunny at 5:51 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow! I totally disagree with all of the people who want her to live with you. I love my brother, he's five years older than I am, and we would've Killed each other if we had to live together when he was 21. You may be her legal guardian, but unless she Desperately wants to live with you, that would be a bad choice for both of you. Trust your instincts on that one!

I agree with others that therapy would be Awesome, though. I finally went into therapy thanks to a friend who'd been after her father died when she was a teenager said, "everyone could use therapy - I'm glad folks made me go back then". It was tremendously helpful.

Basically lean on as many adults and professional therapists as you can - you all need support, do what you can to get it. And express your love in every way you can without acting like a parent, while being a responsible big brother. I'm so sorry for your losses, and good luck to your family.
posted by ldthomps at 5:52 PM on June 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

I imagine one of her biggest fears right now might be being entirely on her own. The thought that there is no one who is legally required to look after her AND wants to do so on a day-to-day basis must be terrifying.

I completely understand that you are not in a position to be that person. (I think that a lot of answerers are forgetting that YOU ALSO just lost both your parents and are at a really tough time of life. You may not have the emotional and physical resources to really be a guardian to your sister).

But I think you and your lawyers and extended family need to figure something out by which she is living with a legal guardian. If the friends of the family she is currently staying with are willing to take on that role, legally, that would be ideal. Or if your uncle is. Or some other friend of the family or relative. It shouldn't be TOO hard to find someone willing given she will probably only be living with them for another two years or so.

She needs that stability and security so that she can put down roots and lose some of the fear.
posted by lollusc at 6:33 PM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

It is great that you're thinking about giving your sister tools she needs to be successful, but like others have said, it's not really a matter of sitting down with her and saying "stop crying to get what you want." Morals, respect for authority, maturity, etc don't come from words as much as they come from experience.

So, have some experiences with your sister. Hang out with her, go see a movie, take her out to dinner, ask her about her homework. Listen and be empathetic, and let her know that you'll be there for her consistently. Don't try to have an after-school special kind of conversation, but do keep your cool if/when she is acting out, and model mature, respectful behavior all around.

This book could be extremely helpful: How to talk so teens will listen and listen so teens will talk. It is amazing. There is so much in there about how to communicate with teenagers, that will work whether you're trying to be an authority figure, a role model, or a friend.
posted by violetish at 7:26 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Poor girl. Both parents are dead just when she's careening toward adulthood. Oldest brother doesn't want to take her in and older brother is flying the coop in the fall. I wouldn't be very well-adjusted either.


Where's your younger brother today? College isn't a ticket to dodge the family troubles. Is he living with your sister at the other family's house or did he leave her too after your mom's passing?

You three need each other and your sister needs to be with someone who can sign her permission slips and notes from school.

Don't let a piddly five year age difference or her gender cause such a chasm. Take the time to learn about your sister's interests. Listen to her, even if you think she's being immature and bratty. And get your brother involved too. I like the idea of all 3 of you going to therapy.

My best wishes to all of you.
posted by ladygypsy at 7:36 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

So sorry about your situation - just two things: 1. 5 years isn't a huge gulf for siblings. Five years from now you'll laugh at the very idea. 2. Please don't judge her for saying nasty things to your mother, let alone allowing it to poison your relationship or your concept of her as a person. Nearly every woman I've ever known had horrific knock down, drag out (emotionally, not physically - but sometimes, a bit!) fights with their mothers at her age... it's not her fault that your mother died. I bet your mother understood and forgave - you need to do the same. Everything you say about her seems within the bounds of "normal (awful)" teenaged behavior even for a kid with living, supportive parents. I cannot imagine how frightened and insecure she must be. You don't have to live with her (although it might be the best idea) but you do have to be her rock, no matter how difficult she is. You're all she has. You're her big brother, and her guardian.
posted by moxiedoll at 7:54 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

What a difficult situation you are in. I am impressed with your compassion and commitment to your siblings - it shows a great character.

Since others have taken on the core responsibilities for your siblings' day-to-day needs, I wonder if you could do the most good by stepping away from parenting type responsibilities, and instead focus on creating new rituals and routines to build a new, stronger, long-term bond between the three of you. So rather than offering advice, you could set up Wednesday night dinners, or 1st Friday of the month movie nights, or Saturday night midnight donut runs? Or weekly skype calls, or, I don't know, facebook scrabble matches? Some way to create and maintain connection through what is sure to be a difficult time for all of you (you yourself are still quite young and will undoubtedly have your own challenges ahead of you - not to mention the ones behind you of losing your parents).

What I'm suggesting is, and I know it's hard given family dynamics, that if you do take on more responsibility for your siblings, the goal be to simply create rituals of having time and intimacy together. And then as you all grow and mature and figure things out - especially your little sister who is apparently having the roughest time of all of you - you'll all have this routine family connection to rely on and come back to and build on.

I admire where you're coming from on this and I wish you the best with it!

Oh, and PS if it's any consolation, I was a fucking nightmare of a teenage girl. I constantly got in swearing fights with my parents, refused to listen to anyone, dropped out of high school, etc, ad nauseum. I'm not perfect now, but I'm pretty well adjusted and am pretty responsible in terms of increasingly looking after my parents and so forth. I know you know this since you said you also went through a rough adolescence, but in all likelihood your sister will pull herself together. It may take a while though...
posted by serazin at 7:54 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah, and I liked salvia's suggestion above about trying to find a special camp or something for your sister to plug into. I really needed an escape from the miseries of school and home. It could have been drugs or other bad stuff but luckily I found these Uniterarian Universalist youth conferences and seprately, a community of anti-war protesters during the first gulf war. Oh, and Queer Nation. I got super involved with these groups of people that I shared interests with and they were also places I could take on real responsibility which in tern helped me mature and grow. It was an escape, a distraction, but also a really helpful, growthful thing to do.
posted by serazin at 8:00 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Can you go into more detail as to why she can't live with you other than you don't want her to? Like, are there any good determined-by-someone-else reasons (like you live in a dorm and the school makes you do that) that you can't take her? Because her parents have abandoned her and so have you, as things stand right now. I realize it'd be hell, and if I were 21 I wouldn't want to be constantly parenting a 16-year-old walking drama bomb either, but NO WONDER she's hostile to you under these circumstances. It is surprising that she hasn't gone up on a tower with a gun yet. If you live in a different town, hell, switching schools might be a good thing for her if she's already getting bullied at this one.

Mostly I just don't think you're going to get anywhere with her emotionally unless you are in her life on a more frequent-- preferably constant-- basis. Right now it's like, why should she listen to you or trust you? You're not there for her.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:15 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

For many reasons, I am unable to actually have my sister live with me at this time (frankly, it would drive me crazy and I need to focus on my studies); as a result, she is living with family friends who have not raised a teenager before

Not okay.

Sorry, but there are a few things I feel absolutist about when it comes to the obligations of both family and our society. Caring for orphaned and abandoned children is one of them. Because that's what she is--she's a child with no one to care for her, whose parents have died and whose own relatives have failed to step up to the plate. Of course she's pessimistic. Of course she tried to push her mother away. This is an incalculable burden for a teenage girl. She needs a stable, consistent presence--she needs to know that she's important and people are willing to sacrifice to take care of her.

I had friends who were raised in situations like these in high school, and no matter how bright they were, it inevitably ended really, really poorly--with alcohol or drug abuse, with dropping out of high school, much less college. I'm sorry about your loss, but it's time to cowboy up.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:20 PM on June 25, 2011 [18 favorites]

buteo, you are in your early 20s. You are too young to have her live with you.

Right now, you need to concentrate on passing your university degree and on your own development as a person (and your own grief at the loss of your parents!)

You need more resources/support for all three of you:

- individual counselling;
- family counselling for the three of you;
- friends of your parents;
- relatives;

both for role models, for someone to talk to, and for practical support.

OP, please don't let people guilt-trip you into having your sister move in with you. I feel strongly, from what you've written, that you don't have the emotional/mental/practical resources for that to work out well for either of you.

Be there for your sister, through weekly dinners/phone calls/movie nights, through asking others to help, through making her an appointment with a counsellor,

but be aware that you have to fit your own oxygen mask before assisting others.
posted by Year of meteors at 8:45 PM on June 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

Since I'd like to piggyback on some of the other comments that others have made in this thread, but I'm unsure about how to put it eloquently, I'm going to quote from another thread, when the user Hiker offered these words about caring for others:

My grandmother took a fall and broke two vertebrae in her neck and was paralyzed from the waist down. The doctors were never sure if and when she'd be able to walk again; my grandfather, of the generation that men work outside of the house and fix things, had no skills when it came to managing a house. It seemed pretty obvious that their entire house dynamic was about to change, possibly forever.

I moved in, after some careful thought, and stopped the career and education path I was on to be there for my family. It was an opportunity in disguise; what I found was that I ended up with incredible relationships with people, a real sense of self-worth and a feeling that doing the right thing actually did feel good. I became the leader of their household, helping them with everything; through months of hospitalization, rehab and return to the household. I was there for the better part of a year and a half; eventually returning to my previous life.

The gratitude of people in need sustains you; many people achieve career and education success but few end up with the kind of success story that you will have by making your sister's life better. The respect, not only from others but also from yourself, that you get is empowering. It makes you a better and more successful person.

You will find professional and education success at some point if it's what your passion is; the opportunity to be that incredible person in someone's life while they're leaving this world/suffering is something few take the opportunity to experience. That same grandfather passed away last month and while I was giving his eulogy, I felt so lucky to have been in the right place, at the right time to be there for them. It gave me as much back, probably more, than I ever gave them.

It wasn't your plan, but coming from experience, it's so, so worthwhile. Best of luck!

In short, I'd second the idea that you should have your sister move in with in you. I'm sorry for your loss, but you've just been presented an opportunity to potentially change your sister's life for the better. It is hardly under ideal circumstances, but as her brother and a remaining link to her lost parents, you're the ideal person to take on that role. I'm sorry this has happened to you both, but there is a lot to salvage here.
posted by ajarbaday at 10:00 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thank you for all the helpful comments! In order to clarify some points:

I cannot have my sister live with me because I do not have the mental health to do so. I have been in and out of therapy for the past two years (for major depressive disorder) and am just starting to cobble my life together now. I am not a stable or healthy household for her at this point in time. I am in the same city as her (an hour away) and we do go for dinner, movies and the like regularly (once a week unless we're all super busy). I already feel like crap about this and spent months agonizing over it as my mother's health declined and we tried to find someone who could take care of her but the fact is that I cannot. I can barely take care of myself right now.

She has one year left of high school (she skipped a year) and is adamant about staying at the same school. Having her move in with me would result in her having to switch schools or make a 1.5 hour commute (due to traffic). Considering she cannot legally drive and I have classes that begin at the same time her school does, this is extremely inconvenient. We asked her what she preferred out of the available options: live with family friends or move to where I am. She chose to live with the family friends. For reference, the family friends are a married hetero couple with two preteens (12 and 14); the wife was my sister's grade 3 teacher. My uncle was an option but due to my sister's lying and manipulating, and the fact that he is the executor of her trust account (thus has direct access to her money), he decided that she was better off living with the couple than with him alone in a big house. She also would have had to move to live with him, something she is adamantly against.

I do not sit her down and speak to her about her problem behaviour and how to fix herself, I know that will get me nowhere. I wrote in the tone I did out of frustration and exhaustion, not expressly contempt, though I will keep that in mind and do my best to change my internal narrative. The "she will drive me crazy" line was more of a jab at my own mental health than at her behaviour.

She has repeatedly turned down and rebuffed therapy. She used to have a social worker following her at school a few years ago but then stopped going. I have tried mentioning this before but I will try again.

As to her summer, she will be spending most of it at a cadet camp starting in a week. She will be there for 6 weeks of the summer and it is something she really enjoys and has done for the past 4 years. She is really excited to go and her uncles (both maternal and paternal) have permission to take her out on weekends, which one of them has promised to do for a local motorcycle rally (which she also loves).

The main reason I asked this question was to find out if it made any sense for me to TRY to fill a semi-parental role considering I do not live with her. Considering these responses, my answer is a resounding "no". I do intend to do my best to help in other ways, using suggestions here, so thank you for that.
posted by buteo at 10:23 PM on June 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

Just a suggestion--you might consider moving closer to her if it's at all possible--perhaps a half hour away rather than an hour. This might make regular "dates" more possible (or even something like once-weekly sleepovers) and less intrusive for you. I suspect that what she needs above all else right now is routine and guaranteed access to family, and anything you can do to make that more possible is likely to have a tremendous impact on her in the future.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:31 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

to find out if it made any sense for me to TRY to fill a semi-parental role considering I do not live with her

Hmm, my take is no, I'd really avoid changing your role toward her. It'd be better to have you in your same old role, basically being yourself her brother, but in a way that is a little more there for her and determined to stick together, if that makes sense. She needs more people in the trenches with her, not more authority figures.

It does sound like you find yourself wanting to look out for her well-being a little more, and like you'd like to speak up a bit more about what your concerns are. I'd suggest a little caution and spending some time thinking about how to do that without your exasperation or stress coming through. This is nothing personal, but for everyone, age 21 is a year when things seem crystal clear, and it's hard not to occasionally be a moralizing judgmental know-it-all. Speaking from experience. :) So, maybe when you're talking to her, try to retreat from feelings of certainty to a place of interest, curiosity, and acceptance. Maybe try to relate to her not from the side of yourself that has started to feel like you've got things figured out, but from the side of yourself that admits "I have no idea where to start."

I myself have no idea how I would've related to my younger sibs if this had happened to me, and the idea of becoming the parental figure would've been terrifying. It sounds like you're off the hook in that respect, and you can go on just being her brother, just with a bit more "let's stick together" energy, the way you're doing now. I'm really sorry that you're all having to deal with this.
posted by salvia at 11:29 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Posting again in light of your clarifications.

You seem to be handling things well. As well as they can be anyway. Don't feel bad if your sister doesn't live with you. My sister and I drove each other nuts the two years that we lived together with me as her guardian. The whole brother/guardian relationship is a tricky one to manage, especially if you're living in the same household. Once my sister turned 18, we both found separate apartments and our relationship has improved immensely since. I can now be her brother again, and leave that whole guardian business in the past.

Be the best brother that you can be for her, as opposed to trying to act as a "guardian". Do the legal stuff that being a guardian requires, but other than that just foster as much of a personal relationship as you can with her.
posted by Homo economicus at 11:39 PM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry but I really disagree with the guilt trip others have tried to put on you by saying you should move mountains to have your sister move in with you. You're barely out of your teens yourself and have also suffered a lot of tragedy in your young life and the fact that you're coping and taking care of yourself so well is already a lot. Having your sister move in with you would clearly jeopardize that and I think you're making the right decision not to have that happen. Your follow-up makes that even more clear.

Just keep letting your sister know that you're there for her if she needs to talk, if she needs to spend some time with you, etc. Keep telling her you love her even if her behavior isn't good. Ask her what she needs and try to give it to her. But at the same time maintain your own life and sanity as best you can, because if you don't stay healthy yourself you won't be able to help her at all.
posted by hazyjane at 12:04 AM on June 26, 2011 [8 favorites]

I am curious - is there any reason why the three of you (you, your brother and your sister) cannot live with the uncle in his house? I am sorry to read that, at such a young age all three of you are living apart, or with non-family members.
posted by seawallrunner at 12:15 AM on June 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thanks for clarifying.

I really don't get the people pressuring you to take your sister in. My guess is most of them have not been in similar circumstances? When I was in my early 20s there is no way I could have taken care of a younger sibling. It would have been terrible for both of us. I trust you that you've made the right decision about this.

Good luck - you are working hard to do the right thing.
posted by serazin at 1:14 AM on June 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Seawallrunner, my uncle lives just over the provincial line so we'd have to go through a whole bunch of hoops to do that (which may take more than the year my sister has left in high school). Not to mention my sister really really doesn't want to change schools and if she did move there she would have a really horrible commute (1.5 to 2 hours) by car let alone by bus. My brother is going to another city ~6-7 hours away for his degree at the end of the summer (one of the top schools in the country, a program he's really excited about that isn't offered any closer and he's been looking forward to moving out for 2+ years now) and there is no way in hell I will ask him to give that up.

As to moving halfway, due to the geography of this city that'd place me in a completely different socio-economic area, not to mention take me away from my support groups that I have built in my neighbourhood. It would also take me away from the rapid transit system, doubling or tripling my commute. I worry that if I were to do this, my mental health would quickly falter. On the flipside, my current location is easy for her to reach by bus should she decide to come by without warning and the extra drive really isn't that bad in my mind. This just seems like a half-assed compromise to try to make myself feel better about being closer, without any tangible benefits. I do my best to be available to her through other means (text, IM, Facebook) should she decide to use them.
posted by buteo at 11:44 AM on June 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have not been in either of your positions, but I suspect that if I were in her shoes I'd be more interested in "we're in this together," meaning emphasize the similarities of what you're going through. You're both grieving. You're both fragile. You're both orphans trying to figure out what's next. I think it would be useful to let her know that you're also sad and confused, (without making it her problem to try to fix, if she's inclined towards "fixing" behavior). Likewise, her trauma isn't yours to fix, but it could be yours to listen to without judgement or advice- if you're able to bear the burden of being her shoulder to cry on. You aren't THAT much older than her, so trying to be the "adult" might just make her feel more alone.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:37 PM on June 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

My four-years-younger brother (and really, five years is not a huge gap! I bet you have friends five years older than yourself, right?) used to absolutely clam up when I asked him about his dating life. We only started talking about relationships when I opened up to him about what was going on with me. Maybe you can try that angle when it comes to that part of your sister's life? I don't think you are the right person to have The Talks with her, but telling her about the boys in your life may make her feel more comfortable talking about the boys/girls/whoever in her life. (Even if you aren't dating, surely you have a crush or an ex or something?) The family friend she lives with, who has her own teens and is a teacher, sounds like she's probably equipped to handle the heavy lifting. The best thing you can do to help her stay safe in this area may be listening without judgement. If she makes some poor decisions, as we all do, she's going to need someone there to hold her hand while she deals with the fallout. A five-years-older, still-her-peer-not-an-authority-figure brother is a perfect person to do that.

You also ask what you should avoid altogether: food. As a woman in my mid-twenties, my unhealthy relationship with food IS LARGELY THE PRODUCT OF my well-meaning parents trying way too actively to make my relationship with food more healthy. Just. Don't. (Unless you think her health is in immediate danger, in which case, talk with the family friends she lives with about this.)
posted by equivocator at 6:39 PM on June 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

buteo, I just wanted to say how much I admire you and your entire family for dealing with an enormously awful thing with as much grace as you are already. As you're helping care for your sister, don't forget to car for yourself.

I don't have any experience dealing with tragedy of this scope, but I do have experience in being and talking to a teenage girl. I think one of the things that will serve your future relationship with her best is just listening when she talks. That you love her, and that you are enormously proud of her, are the only things you should be trying to convey. She may well be a whiny, manipulative person who will stay that way, or she may just be a child who is lashing out against the horrible set of circumstances that have been dealt her. Either way, you don't have to "fix" her. When she gets old enough and gets some of her equilibrium back, she'll make her own choices about how she'll behave going forward, but she needs to know that you'll always love her. And positive reinforcement of the things that do make you proud will get you further than criticizing the things that bug you. Praise the good and ignore the bad is advice people give for everything from pets to kids, but I think it's especially true in the case of teenage girls, because if you're a teenage girl, especially an unpopular one, you ALREADY feel that everything you do is wrong and bad and all your fault. Listening instead of guiding should be your job here. And trying to see things from her point of view as much as you can.

she once got mad and told our terminally ill mother to "just die already" and never apologized for it

Think about how HORRIBLE that must feel to her now. Even if she won't admit it. Even if she spends years saying she's not sorry for saying it. She KNOWS deep inside that she said something that hurt a person she loved, and now she can NEVER take it back. And telling her "well, mom knew you didn't mean it" won't help yet, because she knows she did mean it at the time. And she won't understand yet that she also meant a lot of other things like "I love you, please don't die." But some part of her did just want everything to be over, and was incredibly angry. And until she can know that it was ok to feel that, and that it doesn't mean it was the last word on her entire relationship with her mom, it will pain her every time she thinks about it. (Like the way you would feel if you read your post after something had happened to her. Your anger and frustration IS one of the things you feel right now, but it's not the only thing. But imagine if it had been the last thing you said about her...)

I also have no idea what our mother taught her about safer sex but I worry that her self-esteem issues could lead her to make some poor decisions later on if she's not properly educated (though she insists that she doesn't have any interest in dating/boys/girls right now). If I so much as try to mention any of this, she starts crying or screams and runs up to her room and slams the door.

As a formerly nerdy, unpopular high school girl, I guarantee you here's what was probably going on in that conversation. She's thinking, "I say I'm not interested because nobody is interested in ME. No one will EVER be interested in me. Why is he being so cruel?! I can't talk about any of this stuff because it just makes me remember how much my peers LOATHE me." This is a problem that only time and finding a group of friends she clicks with will solve. So if you can find an encourage more things like the camp she enjoys, do it. If she's a nerd, take her to activities where she can nerd it up. Help her to find a group of people that likes the same things she likes, and it will give her a refuge from the huge number of hard things she has to deal with.

And counseling. Counseling. Counseling. If your own therapist isn't prepared to deal with family grief issues, find one who is and make an appointment with them too. Talk to them about how best to help your sister.
posted by MsMolly at 10:59 AM on June 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

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