Do I Stay or Do I Go?
December 3, 2012 11:41 AM   Subscribe

How do I deal with the stress and drama caused by my emotionally manipulative live-in sister? The emotional welfare of her two young children is also at stake. Special snowflake details inside.

I’m coming to the hive mind because I am, quite literally, at my wit’s end.

I live in a home owned by my parents, but after my parents divorced and separately remarried, I remained in the home alone, paying off the mortgage. The home is now completely paid for.

For nearly the last five years, my sister (younger than me by five years), has lived with me. During this time, she has been involved in an abusive relationship and had two children (3yo and 4yo) with the abuser. He is no longer in the picture and has been out of it since the second child was born, over three years ago.

My sister is a very unhappy person. She wakes up angry, she goes to bed angry and she strives to ensure that everyone else is as unhappy as she is. She is currently unemployed and stays home with my niece and nephew all day, every day. She is frequently (read “often”) harsh with her children. In my opinion she is mean. She is loud, she yells, she’s short tempered with them and she expects them to exhibit behavior that children twice their ages would have difficulty doing.

Many times, my sister and I will get into disagreements over the way she handles the kids, usually after she has done something that I think goes too far over the line. Our mother also feels that my sister is too hard on her kids and if either of us attempt to intervene or defend the kids, an argument between the adults invariably starts.

The stress of worrying about the children is making me insane. I constantly walk on eggshells, afraid of the children doing something that is going to invoke her wrath, causing her to yell, causing the children to cry. I find myself coming home from work later and later each day – going to see a movie after work, spending hours at the library, wandering through the mall, just to get some peace and quiet.

I would like to point out that she has never been physically abusive with either of the children, but emotional abuse is on par with physical abuse as far as I’m concerned.

I worry that if I leave, the children will suffer because there will be no one to stand up for them. I also worry that if I do nothing, I will remain miserable and stressed beyond my breaking point. I currently suffer from anxiety/depression issues and take medication for same. I’ve tried to get my sister to see a therapist or talk with her doctor about medication for her issues but, as she’s currently unemployed, she has no insurance and medical care is prohibitively expensive.

I also realize that these children, whom I love dearly and have provided the majority of the financial support for, are not mine and I truly have no say in how she raises them. I just want them to be happy and healthy and feel like this is not the best environment for this to happen in.

Please, help me. I’m in emotional agony and don’t know what else to do. Should I leave? If I do, how do I get over the guilt I will feel about leaving my niece and nephew? If I go, how do I drum up the monthly rent that I’m not currently paying? Should I stay? If so, how do I cope with the never ending onslaught of negativity and hostility?

Thank you in advance for your comments.
posted by BrianJ to Human Relations (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Why would you leave? I think it's within your right to tell your sister she has to change her behavior and get a job, or leave.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:45 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I truly have no say in how she raises them

Depending on how bad the abuse is, this might or might not be true. Talk to a lawyer who specializes in family law.
posted by empath at 11:51 AM on December 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Why does she have a right to live there rent-free? Why does she have a right to make you anxious and feel bad about life?

If you kick her out, she and her children will find a place to stay. If she was a nicer person who didn't make you anxious and wasn't emotionally abusive, then she could stay. But that person doesn't exist.

Don't allow yourself to be bullied out of your own home. You should have an equity stake in this home. She spent zero. She shouldn't get to live there alone just because she has kids. Tell her the children are welcome to stay, but she is not.
posted by inturnaround at 11:56 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, BrianJ, this is heartbreaking and I'm sorry you're all dealing with it.

While the children are not being neglected or physically abused, you are absolutely right to be concerned for their well being. I think you are within your rights to point out when she is behaving in a manner that is abusive. I'd also urge you to think about contacting child protective services if you feel that this is impacting their mental health. Most states include emotional abuse in their child abuse statutes. A report is not designed to punish the parent, but instead to give the parent the support they need to take care of their kids in a healthy way. Parenting classes, mental health resources, etc. could all be programs she would be referred for to ensure the well being of her kids.

I would also strongly recommend contacting NAMI for help locating subsidized mental health services for your sister. She is struggling and needs support that you cannot provide.

Finally, I'd really strongly recommend that you speak with your parents about how you can all provide a united front to protect her children. This might mean offering babysitting services so she gets a break, it might mean coming up with some kind of conditions that she has to meet to continue to live in the home with you (e.g., get a job, get mental health support, etc.), but most importantly should be a consistent way you all react when you see her interact inappropriately with her children.

Best of luck to all of you.
posted by goggie at 11:57 AM on December 3, 2012 [11 favorites]

Would your parents be willing to compensate you for the amount you paid into the home somehow, so you can leave? Maybe you could find a suitable place to rent or buy nearby and take the kids a couple nights a week for dinner at your place (their mother not invited)? Your own health is important and something has to change.

I don't think telling your sister to change or get out will help because she knows you won't put the children on the street. Maybe your parents could help her with therapy and/or parenting classes, as a condition of staying in the house?

It sounds wretched and I am so sorry you feel stuck with your situation. Good luck!
posted by Glinn at 12:01 PM on December 3, 2012

It sounds like the rent for even a tiny studio apartment would be well worth the mental health.

Do you enjoy being with your niece/nephew, apart from the negative atmosphere? Could you offer to babysit regularly, once or twice a week? Perhaps a lot of your sister's anger comes from being cooped up at home... it might help her too to have a few hours to herself.
posted by nakedmolerats at 12:06 PM on December 3, 2012


If ever a situation screamed for an intervention, this one does.

You, your parents and anyone else who cares to be involved can and should participate. The kids should be out of the house while this occurs.

Use a script that someone would use in a drug intervention and substitute "behavior" for "Addiction".

"Sis, I love you and the kids like anything and I want us to be able to live in harmony together. This is MY home and your behavior affects me in the following ways.

1. I walk on eggshells all the time.
2. I'm afraid that your anger and range crosses the line into emotional abuse of your children.
3. I support us all, and you are draining my financial resources.

If you are unwilling to do the things on my list, I will have to evict you and the children.

1. Take parenting classes from ABC Agency.
2. Get into counseling to deal with your anger.
3. Get a job and contribute fairly to the living situation here.

Because I love you and I don't want to see you hurting anymore, I will no longer enable you to continue with these harmful and negative behaviors in my home."

Get your folks on board, and have it all lined up so she can get on it.

If she won't do what you ask, move to evict her. It will be hard, it will be unpopular, but tough love sometimes is the best way to get adults to cowboy up and do what needs to be done.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:10 PM on December 3, 2012 [22 favorites]

Who actually owns the house? If you do, then evict her. If your parents own it, then probably the best thing for you will be to simply move out --- but if you do, remember that you do NOT owe your sister any financial support whatsoever: not rent money, not food or mall or clothing money, not a car or other transportation, and certainly you do NOT owe her any child support..... if she wants child support, she can damn well go to court and get it from the kids' father. Either way, you need to stop living in the same place as her.

Once you move out, that will massively reduce the stress you're under; Sister can get a job and support herself and her kids, as she should have been doing all along. If your parents are willing to let her live in their house rent-free after you move out, that's their business.

You've got to remember the airline rule about oxygen masks: you always help yourself BEFORE helping someone else.
posted by easily confused at 12:29 PM on December 3, 2012

I think taking the kids and going to the park with them so your sis has some time to herself might help more than discussing her childrearing skills or staying out til late. Taking care of 2 toddlers 24/7 is really, really hard work and honestly, yelling is to be expected sometimes unless they are exceptionally well behaved.

Yes, I realize you already support your sister. She may need even more support.
posted by The Toad at 12:31 PM on December 3, 2012

I know this must be incredibly stressful and frustating for you. But those kids need a strong, stable adult protector or two in their lives. When they grow up, you will want them to remember you as someone who stood up for them, not someone who just left them to the mercy of their mother because her outbursts made him uncomfortable.

As others have said, emotional abuse in many states IS on a par with physical abuse (and personally, I definitely agree with you about that).

I like Ruthless Bunny's response, although I wonder if your sister might end up simply being more devious about how she inflicts abuse on the kids, especially as you describe her as "emotionally manipulative." But it does seem as though telling her, "Look, you need to clean up your act and get help or I'm going to evict you and call CPS" or something like that seems preferable to simply going ahead and doing those things.

Do your research and gather your information. If you do go the legal route, see if the family lawyer can refer you to a social worker or organization for family counseling and support who might be able to advise you on how to handle the inevitable interpersonal conflict.

And document everything. Document the frequency of the outbursts, the circumstances, the words she uses, the children's responses. Document how she responds when you attempt to intervene and whether she improves (unlikely, I know). Those children need badly for someone to intervene on their behalf, and it would be much better for them if it were another family member.
posted by tully_monster at 12:34 PM on December 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Jane, would you consider going to parenting classes/groups? I know you get stressed taking care of the kids, and not having much money, etc., etc., and I think you might feel an awful lot better having other parents to talk to. Would you consider a part time job, so that you 'd have some income, and a break from the kids? To be honest, the yelling and unhappiness really stresses me out, and I think you and the kids deserve more happiness. And I need some peace at home; the constant conflict is wearing me down.

Also, can the house be divided into 2 apts? You can be a loving resource for the kids, and provide some balance. And, stop walking on eggshells; live your life, and stand up for yourself and your family. Sometimes, people get away with crap because they can. I know that's simplistic, and change is slow, but I've done that with family, with reasonable success.

Go to Parents Anonymous meetings if you can, and get some therapy for yourself.
posted by theora55 at 12:58 PM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think the people with the very practical advice are maybe not reflecting on the emotional reality that makes it maybe not so likely you will throw out an unemployed single mother and two children under five. I mean, by all means, explore the practicalities of doing that (maybe they'll end up with your mother?) but I'm not sure what her options really are. Similarly, I'm not sure "don't buy clothing or groceries for your niece and nephew" is a great plan.

On the other hand, I'm unclear what your options are either. Is this your house or do you have some kind of deal with your parents where she is allowed to live there, too? Were things better or the same when she was working? Is she on TANF or getting food stamps? I think that some more information would get you better advice in this discussion.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:34 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I want to thank everyone who has responded so far. You have no idea how much I appreciate it. I'm going to try to address as many questions you guys have as I can. Forgive me if I miss something.

roomthreeseventeen - I've tried to discuss this issue with our parents and neither of them are willing to kick her out with the children. That severely limits my options, unfortunately.

empath - I've contacted the local office of CPS. They've essentially brushed me off. They are understaffed and underfunded and have basically informed me that short of physical abuse or her not feeding the children there isn't anything they can do.

goggie - The NAMI suggestion is an excellent one and I'm going to contact them as soon as I can to see what sort of help we can get for my sister. I just hope she'll be willing to go.

easily confused - My parents own it. I paid the remainder of the mortgage out through the monthly loan payments.

DarlingBri - She is on WIC (Women/Infants/Children) which I believe is similar, if not the same thing as TANF. Things weren't much better when she was working, but she lost her job about six months ago and things have been getting markedly worse since then.

My apologies to everyone else who has responded if I didn't mention your post by name, but they've all provided me with information and insight which is invaluable to me at this point, so thank you.

If anyone has any other questions, just let me know.
posted by BrianJ at 6:11 PM on December 3, 2012

The NAMI suggestion is an excellent one and I'm going to contact them as soon as I can to see what sort of help we can get for my sister. I just hope she'll be willing to go.

NAMI is about resources/support for families and loved ones of those suffering from mental illness. They can also help you with resources/support for your anxiety/depression. You say you're taking meds but you don't say you're in therapy. That would be very helpful for you in this situation.

I would like to point out that she has never been physically abusive with either of the children, but emotional abuse is on par with physical abuse as far as I’m concerned.

Bottom line is that you believe these children are being abused. Children in abusive homes NEED HELP. Talk to a lawyer.
posted by headnsouth at 6:33 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Coming in from a different angle - was your sister always mean and angry, or is this because she had a hellish relationship with an abuser, two small children while working full-time as a single mom, then losing her job and is now caught in a spiral of despair and rage at the mess of her life?

If this is her personality or there are other mental health issues complicating this like addiction, then yes call CPS, a family lawyer (go to several for the initial free consult, see if there's one who seems sensible and could help), try local non-profits that help with children or single moms, and prepare to either move out or to push for custody. You and your parents would regret not fighting to help these kids if the abuse worsens.

Being an unemployed stay at home mother to two small kids isn't a vacation, especially if your financial situation is unstable and you're stressed about the future.

Has she had a day off from the kids? Is she home alone with them all day? Who cleans the house, who does grocery shopping, who does laundry? Do the kids go for daycare? Does her abusive ex still have any custody access?

Maybe call your parents and anyone else and ask them to pitch in to help for a month. Arrange for her to go out with some old friends, to go to a salon and get a haircut and have a day without kids, whatever would give her some respite and then try just positive attention - you cooked such a great meal, that's a cute outfit you picked for your daughter, thanks for asking about my day, you're so thoughtful - for a couple of weeks and then gently edge in conversations about what's stressing her out and her worries for the future. She may simply be drowning and unable to ask for help because she's so overwhelmed.

If she has great childcare, financial support and is just screaming at the kids when they're interrupting her TV time, ignore this and go straight to seeking outside help (the intervention idea of Ruthless Bunny is great. Even if she doesn't respond, your family will be united in taking the next step of getting outside help.)
posted by viggorlijah at 8:59 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, being alone with toddlers all day is a tough, tough job, and being a single parent would make it even tougher. Can you/your parents help out with the kids for a few days, while you send your sister to crash with a friend? Or, like was mentioned upthread, get the kids out of the house for an hour or two a night, or for a day on the weekend. A couple of good nights' sleep and just some breathing room to think and gather herself might do all of you a world of good.
posted by vignettist at 1:00 AM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

What I've found is sympathizing with someone who's acting badly can get them to not go into defensive mode and then it's easier to focus on finding solutions to the problem. With your sister, it could be telling her she seems so unhappy and angry all the time, it's not good for her or her children which you know she loves.

Asking her if she has any ideas of even small things that could be changed so she'd feel less angry or unhappy. For example, some of the suggestions above of having someone else in charge of the kids to give her some time to herself or maybe finding something to do/group to join once a week so she has something to look forward to. I'm sure together, you could come up with more. It takes a lot of the anger out of someone if they feel like you really want to work with them to make things better.

As someone who hates to be around someone who's angry and sharing it with the rest of the world, you have my sincerest sympathy. Trying to get your sister on board with this and working on it with her will be frustrating sometimes, especially at first but I've found it to be the best strategy with people who were acting in ways I was having trouble handling. You still have the option of moving out or calling CPS if you feel like you can't take it anymore but you sound really worried about your sister's children and trying out a new way of changing the situation seems like it would be worth a try. Best of luck to you whatever you decide to do.
posted by stray thoughts at 2:41 AM on December 4, 2012

Apologies for having taken so long to respond to this question, but things have been chaotic to say the least.

My parents and I have been attempting to take the kids out when we can, giving her time alone and my sister and I have had some serious conversations about her attitude and treatment of the children. She realizes that she gets too upset, yells too much, etc., but is absolutely unwilling to seek psychiatric help in any form. I suppose this is a holdover from our parent's divorce and the subsequent requirement that we all attend counseling sessions. I'm not sure why she is so resistant, but I have presented it as an option and been met with a brick wall and a flat out refusal to even discuss the issue. I've been in therapy for several months and have attempted to describe to her the ways that it has helped me, but no luck.

Actually, things had been improving over the last month or so and then, this morning before work, I woke up to yelling and emotionally abusive behavior once again.

I'm in the process of getting an appointment for my parents to meet with an attorney to find out what the best solution for this particular problem is.

Much thanks to everyone for their suggestions and input.
posted by BrianJ at 7:10 AM on January 11, 2013

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