Help me mediate my dad's deteriorating relationship with my half sister
March 13, 2013 12:36 PM   Subscribe

My Dad is angry and upset with his child who lives on another continent. She is disrespectful to him and he is abrasive and hurtful in return (albeit with good motives overall). And I've been asked to mediate.

My American father had a child with a Bolivian woman when I was about 14 (I'm 30 now, so she 16). My half sister grew up and still lives in the city in Bolivia where she was bornl. Her Bolivian family is fairly well off. My dad supplements by paying for school and health care. She attends an excellent school and has flourished academically. My father is very proud of that. (He paid for her to spend a semester in Germany this past year)

My father, however, still lives in the United States. He has visited his daughter, on average, once every two years. He has maintained fairly regular phone contact.

My half sister's mother and our father have long-standing disagreements about parenting strategies. He has criticized her for her for not enforcing rules and providing discipline. He also, for several years, has been critical of my half-sister's weight, which he blames on her 1) taste for sweets and 2) overeating. He concedes that meals eaten in the home are healthy though. He says she's obese. He is not gentle about how he phrases this. However, I know that he ultimately is concerned for her health.

This situation reached a crescendo when he, along with his girlfriend/partner, went to visit them a few months ago. His account was that she was extremely rude, manipulative, spoiled, not appreciative, etc. I think the flash points were that she said she did not love or care for him and was only interested in financial support. He also said that she is out of control and that she has hit or pushed her mother in the past.

Her comments clearly hurt/angered him. His hurt essentially has been channeled into anger. They have not spoken since he left. Now he wants to send her an email that outlines all things he thinks are wrong with her (including that she "looks terrible", "eats like a pig"). But he also says that it's her responsibility to reinitiate contact. He's acting as though he wants to sever ties although I don't think he really does.

He's angry with her mother because he feels she did not allow him to take a tougher stance when my half sister was younger. He acknowledges not being around has not helped.

I have a good relationship with my half-sister's cousin (whom I know from visiting), but I have not done a good job of establishing my own relationship with her. I am trying to change that currently and skyped with her last week. She seems responsive to me (and likes my fiancee a lot).

Her mother reached out to me to ask me to prevent him from sending this email to my half sister, which I am inclined to do since I think it will hurt far more than it could possibly help.

A few more details: My half-sister's older cousin (Bolivian) who was often her babysister agrees that she is manipulative and spoiled (though she cares about her very much) and that she has a personality her mother was not prepared for.

In essence, I think my dad is going about this the wrong way, though I also think he deserves an apology. I am trying to establish more trust with my sister but I'm not sure it's the right time to mediate directly with her.

I'm not sure that her behavior is just typical "hormonal" teenager behavior. There were rumors that she is depressed but her cousin refutes that, saying it was an attention ploy (I haven't asked my sister directly).

Sorry for the long-winded explanation. I'm worried that the relationship could veer off the tracks. I'm also worried about my sister's personality development (and the impact my dad could have) but I recognize that I am late to the game.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (42 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
No matter what else happens, your father cannot send an email enumerating her faults. Holy shit, don't let that happen. It will destroy their relationship, and more importantly, it will damage her. A lot. Please do all you can to make sure that that email isn't sent.
posted by punchtothehead at 12:42 PM on March 13, 2013 [21 favorites]

Now he wants to send her an email that outlines all things he thinks are wrong with her

But he also says that it's her responsibility to reinitiate contact.

Please, please, please stress to him that she is SIXTEEN. Every sixteen year old is both the shittiest person in the entire world and the person most needing and deserving of love and understanding. That's just how they're built. It is NOT her responsibility at age sixteen to build a relationship with her dad. That is on him, completely.

Honestly, I think the most effective thing he could probably do at this stage is shut down his anger entirely, full stop, and approach this from a tender angle. She's overweight. She grew up with a dad who pretty much never sees her and just throws money at her. He's proud of her as long as she [makes good grades, has the right body weight, whatever], but livid with her when she's not. I imagine that's probably pretty frustrating.

It is entirely possible that she's spoiled, and it's entirely possible that she's manipulative, but it's also very, very possible that she's depressed, feels lonely, feels unloved, feels judged, and doesn't feel like she has a safe place to express any of those things without invoking her dad's ire.

Please try to convince him to forget all of the bad things that happened during the visit and work on starting over, building an actual relationship with his daughter.
posted by phunniemee at 12:48 PM on March 13, 2013 [36 favorites]

I think that you should do whatever you can to prevent the email but do not get yourself drawn into the middle of this as a mediator. While you are trying to build a relationship with your half-sister, the argument still comes down to your father versus a complete stranger and, from the tone of your MeFi, I'm not sure you can be impartial.
posted by Wysawyg at 12:49 PM on March 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Pardon me for saying so, but your dad is acting like a spoiled brat. He's the adult in this situation, he needs to take the higher road.

1. It's not his place to police anyone's weight. Does he honestly think that she's unaware that she's fat? Doubtful. What does he think his criticism will accomplish? People have pointed out to me my whole life that I'm fat. I have not magically become thin, nor am I likely to.

2. Your Dad is thousands of miles away and only sees this daughter once in a blue moon. He is not the custodial parent and his child lives in another country in another culture. I hate to say it, but he doesn't get a vote on discipline or punishment in his daughters daily life.

3. Sixteen year olds are jerks. You were when you were sixteen. I'm not sure what your dad expected, sullen and unappreciative is the norm. You don't get automatic appreciation for writing checks. I'm sure that if you asked this child what she really would have wanted was a daddy in her life who would tell her every single day how important and beautiful she was. What she got is a critical, judgemental ATM. She doesn't HAVE to love him, he's asking WAY too much from her given the way he's framed the relationship.

I don't normally advocate getting in the middle of things between family members, because all you can do is damage your relationship with your dad over this, but in this case I'm going to suggest that you talk to him.

"Dad, I know that your last visit with Cecila didn't go well, and I'm sorry that you're hurt by her behavior. Sure, she's manipulative and spoiled and a lot of other things you don't like, but she's also a child, and she's not really able to do much about it right now. Sending her a hurtful email won't help her, and you could potentially hurt your relationship with her in the future. Think about it from her point of view. She doesn't see you often, and when she does see you, you say mean things to her about her appearance. At sixteen you're so self-concious and you so want your dad to love you, that when he seems to find fault, you lash out. I'm begging you, please be the bigger person and DON'T send her the email. It won't help anything, it won't make you feel better and you could permanantly damage her self-esteem."

If your dad is capapable of writing such an email and of sending it, I doubt seriously that anything you say to him will sway him. I'm kind of disappointed in him. But you won't regret sticking up for your sister.

Hang in there.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:50 PM on March 13, 2013 [35 favorites]

This is uncharitable: it reads like a mostly absent father tries to make up for it by spending money on his long distance daughter rather-than/because-he-can't- be part of the day to day slog of parenting. He feels she is not grateful enough and should be respectful because he spends money on her. And because he is her (absent) parent she should do things the way he wants. She may well be spoiled, but she is also 16. She may, or may not be depressed. Hell, she has such a tenuous long distance relationship with one of her parents that is based (it sounds like) almost entirely on money. Not entirely an unreasonable reason for a teenager to act out.
He is the adult, and kind of acting, eh, not so hot. Like it or not, he is not getting a real apology anytime soon, deserved or not.

Yeah, an email along the lines of what you described would be a pretty big nail in the coffin for years to come wrt any relationship they may have.

I'd try and avoid mediating this as much as possible, you are going to go in with pre-set opinions, one way or the other, and that is not going to engender mutual trust, especially if you have to say difficult things.

Suggest, as nicely as possible to your dad that sending such an email would have damaging consequences, and to give things time to cool down.
posted by edgeways at 12:54 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

If your dad wanted this daughter to grow up a certain way, he should have taken more of an active role as her father as she grew up than he seems to. Him spending money on her life actually doesn't really entitle him to input -- or a free pass for bad parenting. Any misbehavior issues are as much his fault as her mother's because it sounds like he's been an absent, almost in-name-only dad her whole life. That's on him, not your sister.

If he wants to have a better relationship with her, he needs to realize that by just providing financial support and visiting every few years, he may have taught this girl that she's an afterthought and not a primary concern. I'd be a brat too if that was hanging over me all the time, no matter how well off my main family is and how good my childhood was benefits-wise.

TLDR; your dad needs to man up and realize he's been a supremely shitty dad to this girl and that his attempts to take an active role in her life now are misguided and dumb as hell. I don't know if there's anyone in his life who could say that to him, but if you try, you could maybe say something like, "Dad, I love you, but you are being a really terrible parent right now and I can't stand it."

Additionally, I don't think you should get involved at all, but if you do, maybe the one big thing to do is lay into him as much as possible of he even attempts to further shame your sister for her weight. That is so beyond the pale I can't even stand it.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:55 PM on March 13, 2013 [17 favorites]

"Dad, I realize this intercontinental parenting thing has got to be difficult, frustrating and uncomfortable, but you're being an ass."
posted by jon1270 at 12:58 PM on March 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

Also, it might be worth telling your dad that treating your sister like she's some kind of property that has fallen into disrepair is not the way to have a positive impact on her life. Does he love her? Tell him he's showing her that he does in all the wrong ways.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 1:00 PM on March 13, 2013 [7 favorites]

I think the flash points were that she said she did not love or care for him and was only interested in financial support

Step into her shoes for a minute. She's sixteen. She's seen this guy 8 times in her life (less that she actually remembers). Their relationship is based on the money he sends her. Yes, this was a jerky thing to say. But it was accurate, and that's probably why your dad is getting so defensive. He does not deserve love just because he's her father and just because he sends money.

And if he's capable of writing such an email, then he should question whether he loves or cares for her at all either.

Finally, holy not your business, batman.
posted by murfed13 at 1:00 PM on March 13, 2013 [14 favorites]

The very, very, very first thing is that her weight and looks are absolutely none of his business, no matter how well-meaning anyone else may think he is being. That is a non-starter for any conversation, much less something meant to redefine a person's entire relationship with the world.

He can't change that he wasn't there to help mold her development. And certainly not with heated accusations and demands for change. One, she has absolutely no reason to listen to him. Two, it just won't work.

If she's harming her mother, then she needs counseling. If conseling doesn't work, she needs to be with relatives she won't harm and who won't harm her.

She's sixteen. She's been well-provided for but has clearly developed some broken coping mechanisms for the lacks in her life. It's going to take her a while to work this out. Angry letter from mostly-absent Papa isn't going to fix that.

If he tried responding with love and encouragement, that would probably go way further.

People are more motivated to change by being shown the positive upsides to their development than they ever are by didactic ranting. I hope you can encourage your dad to take this approach, instead.

If you want to be a supportive presence, role-modeling appropriate behaviour, that's probably a good idea. But don't become the go-between of two unhealthy communication styles, because that's not going to be good for you.
posted by batmonkey at 1:02 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

So she has this distant father who she doesn't see more than once every two years who tells her she's fat and terrible?

I mean, she might well be, but either way he has no business being anything but as kind as possible to her. She hasn't been born into the easiest setup, money and fancy schools notwitstanding.

Whether the distance was his choice or not is relevant to the situation, but either way he can't just demand love in this kind of situation and get angry when he doesn't receive enough of it. She doesn't actually owe him anything.
posted by egg drop at 1:02 PM on March 13, 2013 [13 favorites]

I would approach him, but don't use the word 'mediate'. If you were mediating, you would approach your father in a spirit of trying to understand your father's side, sister's side, and thep the two of them come to an outcome the can both live with. That's not what you're doing here. You've been asked by your mom to approach your dad to specifically get him to stop doing something. Something that frankly, your mom should be handling herself, and your father did not specifically ask your advice on.

That's just ugly. I know you want to step in front and stop this moving train, but since it doesn't seem like anyone is playing their position - discussing things rationally and taking responsibility - it not only isn't fair to ask you to do so, but it is unlikely that you will succeed without appearing to take sides. It isn't even clear why your mom knows your dad is going to send this email - it seems a bit odd for your dad to tell everyone but the appropriate person (your sister) about it. Messy and odd.

That said, I do think that Ruthless Bunny's language could work. But if it doesn't, don't beat yourself up about it. Just try to be supportive and reach out to your sister if it does in fact, get sent. That's probably equally supportive, and much more likely to be effective.
posted by anitanita at 1:04 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your father needs to be the grown up in this relationship. He also needs to recognize that by being a very distant presence in her life, he has given up the traditional father-daughter relationship.

If he wants to repair the relationship, he needs to do his own soul searching and apology, and then he should start fresh by trying to establish a NEW relationship with this young woman, letting go the past, and going forward with optimism and love. If he's going to hold her feet to the fire, it's not going to work. If he's going to demand an apology for her being a teenager and having hard feelings about his role in her life, it's not going to work. He can only change himself, and he'd better get on that little project STAT.
posted by spindrifter at 1:07 PM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't think you can mediate the relationship between your father and your teenager and I think if you try it will only spoil your relationship with her, and make her relationship with her father worse. From the facts you've laid out here he's a bad father and having people intervene on his behalf is only going to make her more isolated because its clear she can't trust people who are working on his behalf.

The fact that you're judging your sister based on the information given by third parties and calling her names means you don't respect her. You don't know what she's like or whether the way she behalves in front of your father is an aberration caused by not being able to deal with a really hurtful situation that she isn't in any way responsible for.

The nicest way I describe how your dad is acting is that he's behalving like a spoiled teenager. I grew up with a father who lived in another country who I saw infrequently who also liked to make negative comments about my weight. It was creepy, hurtful and dehumanizing and only underscored that to my Dad I wasn't a person with feelings and opinions but basically an object. The last thing any teenage girl needs to be taught is that her value is based on her looks.

Because of this attitude we never had much of a relationship but he thought that because he paid child suport he was due a relationship. At a very young age that attitude was pretty obvious and poisonous to our relationship and my self esteem.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 1:08 PM on March 13, 2013 [17 favorites]

If he takes no part in raising her, he gets no opinion in how she turns out. If I had a father who treated me like an inconvenience and threw money at me to make himself feel better, chances are I'd comfort eat too. This poor girl. Your father is a supreme jerk who should be doing everything he can to improve this relationship, not tear it down. If he can't manage that, tell him to keep out of her life and keep the checks coming. Better no father influence at all than the one she's got.
posted by Jubey at 1:11 PM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

"dad, if you send that email then you'll be lucky to ever hear from her before shes 30 (if that), and I'll totally support her in never talking to you. If you don't actively try and stay in touch, same deal. So, do you want to ever talk to her again or you want to show her that you can be just as immature and vindictive as a 16 year old?"
posted by jacalata at 1:12 PM on March 13, 2013 [9 favorites]

Ask him to think about what his actual goals are, and what actions on his part will accomplish them. He cannot control her actions -- she is an entire, independent person -- and he cannot control her mother's actions; he can only control what he does and what he says. Even that is a lot of power, but he needs to deploy it with care.

Does he actually want his daughter to be successful? To be happy? Then he needs to let go of his anger and hurt, or wait until he can do that before doing anything else. Acting out of anger and hurt doesn't build, it only destroys. Sometimes destruction is healthy, but destroying a 16-year-old girl or any part of her world isn't healthy.
posted by amtho at 1:17 PM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Maybe let your dad vent, but in a constructive way. I don't think the letter is a good idea, but if you can't avoid it, can you and your dad agree to have your dad write the letter, print it out (but not send it) and then have you read it back to him?

It sounds like he's very upset right now and needs to vent a little bit. He wants to vent at what has made him upset, which is your half-sister, but you know that's not going to be helpful one bit in this situation. However writing the letter WILL help him cool off a little bit and get his thoughts together. Also, hearing his own demands verbally read back to him might encourage him to reword the letter in a more constructive manner.
posted by nikkorizz at 1:19 PM on March 13, 2013

My parents were loving and involved parents, and at 16 I also was rude, not appreciative, etc.

I think you should absolutely work on having a relationship with your half-sister. I think that in no way should you be mediating between the two, or passing messages, or doing anything at all like that. (Well, except to stop him from sending that email. You're fine to try and do that.)

Your father is supposed to be the adult. He's been a very, very, very absent parent, and when he is there he is critical of her mother who does all the parenting and of your sister. What does he expect? He should apologise for insulting her and not play stupid passive-aggressive games about who should be making contact first.
posted by jeather at 1:33 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your father is not on the right side of this. He took care of his minimum parenting responsibilities by making sure daughter had enough financial support to go to a good school and not be hungry and also managed to visit every couple of years. Your sister has flourished largely due to factors that have nothing at all to do with him. Additionally, he has started to concern-troll her about her weight at an age where that can be particularly damaging. Tell him not to write the letter and to apologize to sister and her mother and then step out of it.

Do not destroy your chances of having a close relationship with your sister because you chose to align yourself with your father and, thereby, endorsed his bad behavior.
posted by quince at 1:39 PM on March 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

Your dad is trying to be an Idea Man.

Anyone who does anything creative - hell, anyone who does anything that takes work - has met at least one Idea Man. An Idea Man is someone who honestly believes that there is, somewhere out there, a job description consisting of "say your ideas and then people make them happen." An idea for a movie. An idea for a video game. An idea for a book. At the core of this is the belief in reversed priorities: that the idea is the hard part, and the heavy lifting is the easy part.

He seems to believe that he can tell her mom that their daughter is x when she should be y, and it's as easy as that, and he's frustrated that somehow she is still not y. Well, it takes work, and he has more of a right to give parenting feedback than some schmo off the street, but he doesn't have as much right as he thinks he does. The terms he's trying to set are things that take years of steady work, of actually being in her geographical location. He can't just show up or call, say, "Hey, this stuff isn't right! Fix it!" and expect it to foster anything but resentment. And I get why he wants to have an influence, because this is his kid after all, but he isn't a parent to her in a traditional sense and he needs to accept that.

Further: It is impossible to say how much of her behavior can be blamed on her being a teenager until she isn't one anymore. I will say that it doesn't sound atypical. She's angry at him and wants to hurt him so she says that he's just money to her. Okay, fine. He needs to be an adult and not lower himself to her level with the sniping and anger.

Also: He needs to shut up about her weight. Right now, and for the rest of his life. Just needs to shut the fuck up. There has never been a parent in history who has managed to accomplish anything productive by reminding their child how fat he or she is, no matter how good their intentions. I'd hate him too, if he pulled that on me.

The email is an apocalyptically bad idea.


The advice your dad should be following (and it's up to you whether to tell him this or not) is as follows: He needs to chill. He needs to accept that he cannot control this situation. And he needs to take several deep breaths, sit down, and write her an email (a letter would be better but that's just me) and tell her something along these lines: "I'm sorry we parted on angry terms the last time we saw each other. I said hurtful things and I apologize. If you need some time and space away from me, I understand. But I wanted to write to you and tell you that I'll be ready to talk when you are. And that, more than anything, you're my daughter and I love you and I'm proud of you."

After that, his interactions with her mother need to be more along the lines of working together, not just criticizing her results.

Whether he'll do it or not is up to him.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 1:42 PM on March 13, 2013 [23 favorites]

This situation doesn't need a mediator: your dad needs a reality check.

Your dad has only seen his daughter every couple of years, but has spent "several years" criticizing her weight and eating habits. That is awful, unacceptable, and cruel. Don't think for a moment that it's truly about her health: "fat" and "looks awful" are not comments about health; "her doctor, whom I have spoken to many times, recently told me..." would be, but clearly that's not what's going on here.

Your half-sister said something to try to hurt your dad, yes, and that's an unkind way to behave. However, I would suggest that expecting her to apologize before your dad radically transforms his own behavior toward her is wildly unreasonable as well as futile.

She is still in the process of learning how to be an adult, how to navigate relationships. Your dad shouldn't expect her to have the emotional toolkit to navigate a difficult, transcontinental parent-child relationship without some bumps and conflicts. He shouldn't be surprised when she has outbursts of the type teenagers have (does anyone make it to adulthood without having screamed, "I hate you!" at their parents?). And he certainly shouldn't model horrible behavior by continuing to harp on her weight and appearance, or by sending an angry email listing out her faults.

He has the opportunity to model healthy adult behavior. Maybe he'll need some time to cool off before he can do it. Maybe he'll need some counseling or parenting resources. And maybe she'll be too angry to let him get close again. But in any case: he has the opportunity to apologize to her for how he's acted and the things he's said, and to ask her for a second chance. Again, this situation doesn't need mediation. This isn't about your half-sister needing to meet your dad half-way. He needs to act like a mature, responsible, and loving adult, which he has not done.
posted by Meg_Murry at 1:43 PM on March 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

I can't imagine what it would be like to grow up with a father who shows up every two years, attempts to adopt an authoritarian role for the short time he's there while telling you you are fat, and then expects you to be grateful for it. Occasional Dads who show up sporadically throughout your childhood are supposed to spend that time desperately making up for when they aren't around, not snapping at you that you eat like a pig! Uhg!!!

(I also don't believe for a second he's all that concerned about her health, if he was why would he choose a route proven time and again to CAUSE mental health damage? It's like he read a rulebook on how to create eating disorders.)

There's no way in hell your father should send that email. I don't care a bit about what it would do to their relationship, it's going to cause her damage in ways he's clearly not remotely interesting in acknowledging. He's lashing out to injure her like a spoiled child, all while accusing her of having done that to him.

I have no idea why you've take your Dad's side in this.
posted by Dynex at 1:51 PM on March 13, 2013 [18 favorites]

You know, the last thing your sister needs is another person who doesn't even know her getting involved in her life and trying to tell her what she should do (apologize, lose weight, whatever).

I think you should ask your dad two things:

What does he want to happen when he's sent this email?

Does he think that sending an email like that to a 16-year-old he's seen maybe 10 times in her life is likely to to listen? Is is reality-based to expect she will suddenly realize she should A) lose weight and B) apologize to a man who tells her she looks terrible and eats like a pig?

Okay, that was three questions.

If you can find a diplomatic way to remind him that he is the adult in this relationship, do that.
posted by rtha at 2:10 PM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Holy crap.

I understand it may be factors that were beyond his control, but your dad is really simply this poor teenager's sperm donor who sends child support. How in the hades does he think he has earned the right to be parental with her at all-and besides that, what he wants to say is jerkitude in the tenth degree.

It is his obligation to send money-it kinda was his obligation to actually BE there for her upbringing-but under present circumstances, he needs to understand that he has no control over her life, period. AT the best, he needs to try to rebuild their relationship on love and trust, but from what I read, good luck with that.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:15 PM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

I can just tell you from experience my dad sent me a letter like that and he never heard from me again. No phone call, no emails, no contact, ever. I didn't even go to his funeral. Were he still alive and on fire, I wouldn't spit on him to put him out.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:23 PM on March 13, 2013 [24 favorites]

Joining the chorus of here of people who have not spoken to their father in decades because of shit like this.

Your father is behaving atrociously. He sounds like a passive aggressive bully. Your half sister may be better off without having someone that mean and judgmental in her life. He sounds perfectly horrible.

You need to step back and think about why you would possibly defend his behavior. Maybe there's some Stockholm Syndrome or something going on there, but there is no behavior of his, in the story you told, that is defensible in the light of normal human relations.

If you can get him to not send the letter, good for you. But to be honest; were I in your position, I would tell my half sister not to open any email from him, because it's likely to be loaded and ugly and mean, and fuck that dude anyway.

Why anyone would write that sort of letter to their own child, I cannot understand. Why someone would write it to a 16 year old, and somehow think that it's going to magically make that child want anything to do with him ever just delusional.
posted by dejah420 at 2:36 PM on March 13, 2013 [7 favorites]

Emotional Abuse includes

* Verbally assaulting. This involves constantly belittling, shaming, ridiculing or verbally threatening the child.
* Terrorizing. Here, the parent or caregiver threatens or bullies the child and creates a climate of fear for the child. Terrorizing can include placing the child or the child’s loved one (such as a sibling, pet or toy) in a dangerous or chaotic situation, or placing rigid or unrealistic expectations on the child with threats of harm if they are not met.

and may have the following effects:

Douglas Besharov states in Recognizing Child Abuse: A Guide for the Concerned, “Emotional abuse is an assault on the child’s psyche, just as physical abuse is an assault on the child’s body”(1990). Children who are constantly ignored, shamed, terrorized or humiliated suffer at least as much, if not more, than if they are physically assaulted. Danya Glaser (2002) finds that emotional abuse can be “more strongly predictive of subsequent impairments in the children’s development than the severity of physical abuse.”

... Although the visible signs of emotional abuse in children can be difficult to detect, the hidden scars of this type of abuse manifest in numerous behavioral ways, including insecurity, poor self-esteem, destructive behavior, angry acts (such as fire setting and animal cruelty), withdrawal, poor development of basic skills, alcohol or drug abuse, suicide, difficulty forming relationships and unstable job histories.

Emotionally abused children often grow up thinking that they are deficient in some way. A continuing tragedy of emotional abuse is that, when these children become parents, they may continue the cycle with their own children.

Suggestions for avoiding being abusive that you may want to share with your father:

What You Can Do

All children need acceptance, love, encouragement, discipline, consistency, stability and positive attention. What can you do when you feel your behavior toward your child is not embodying these qualities but is bordering on emotional abuse? Here are some suggestions:

* Never be afraid to apologize to your child. If you lose your temper and say something in anger that wasn’t meant to be said, apologize. Children need to know that adults can admit when they are wrong.
* Don’t call your child names or attach labels to your child. Names such as “Stupid” or “Lazy,” or phrases like “good for nothing,” “You’ll never amount to anything,” “If you could only be more like your brother,” and “You can never do anything right” tear at a child’s self-esteem. A child deserves respect.
* Address the behavior that needs correcting and use appropriate discipline techniques, such as time outs or natural consequences. Be sure to discuss the child’s behavior and the reason for the discipline, both before and immediately after you discipline. Discipline should be provided to correct your child’s behavior, rather than to punish or humiliate him or her.
* Compliment your child when he or she accomplishes even a small task, or when you see good behavior.
* Walk away from a situation when you feel you are losing control. Isolate yourself in another room for a few minutes (after first making sure the child is safe), count to 10 before you say anything, ask for help from another adult or take a few deep breaths before reacting.
* Get help. Support is available for families at risk of emotional abuse through local child protection services agencies, community centers, churches, physicians, mental health facilities and schools

Your father's proposed actions rely on humiliation. He needs to apologize and reset his goals. Until he can do that, he needs to walk away and get help for himself.
posted by jaguar at 2:51 PM on March 13, 2013 [10 favorites]

I meant to add: I would actually send that page on emotional abuse, and how to stop doing it as a parent, to your father. He needs to be told that what he has been doing and even more so what he is considering doing is emotionally abusive, and that he needs to stop. I suspect having an "official" link with cited information might help you make that point with him.
posted by jaguar at 2:53 PM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

My father was much more involved in my upbringing than yours has been in your sister's, but even so, our relationship never recovered from his attempts to pull this sort of long distance, authoritarian, I'm-the-dad bullshit when I was a teenager. And he never criticized my appearance (which, seriously, the fact that your father is actually considering telling her she looks terrible and eats like a pig is appalling).

So, maybe she was a jerk. She's a child. He's a stranger who expects more from her than he has any right to.
posted by Mavri at 2:56 PM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

To make my post a little more helpful, let me put this from your sister's point of view. Your father is trying to impose himself on her in the classic old school "I'm your father, do what I say!" expecting his title will lead to deference and she owes him an apology. On the other hand, as you say, the only thing he's ever given her is money and less than a handful of visits. So why, other than tradition/orthodoxy, would he think he's entitled to anything beyond, of course, basic human decency? He's her father in title, but not in any real sense.

To circle back to my post, my dad sent me a letter like that, like I said, and it carefully enumerated all my faults. Or, rather, it carefully enumerated all the things he didn't like about me and told me he hoped I'd fail so I'd finally get my ego under control and maybe the world would beat me up some so I'd quit being a stuck up prick, more-or-less.

However, he hadn't seen me at that point in literally four years. He had no idea what kind of person I was or what I'd been up to or doing. He had no idea I'd just accepted a job offer that would put me in a good job, that I was living with a long-term girlfriend, that I'd basically left home and clawed my way up from nothing to the beginnings of a professional career on hustle and moxie. He'd set up a straw me and merrily knocked it down and set it on fire under the guise of tough love. It wasn't so much the rough nature of his "advice," so much as the fact that here was someone with literally no idea of who I was and what my life was like crashing into it to give me his excellent opinions on my failings as a person.

So, genuinely, what has he done for her that merits any sort of deference besides a basic contribution of genetic material and some financial support that's more to soothe his troubled conscience than out of genuine concern for her? He's trying to have all the fruits of a good relationship with his daughter without doing any of the heavy lifting of parenting. Even leaving aside the fact that teenagers are jerks, of course he doesn't get to parachute into her life every couple of years and start issuing dictums that she rigorously follows. That's ludicrous. He gets treated like an ATM because he is one, by his choice.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:01 PM on March 13, 2013 [16 favorites]

OP, can you me-mail me?
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 3:02 PM on March 13, 2013

she said she did not love or care for him and was only interested in financial support.

This sounds exactly like the kind of thing someone would say to a parent they (the child) were afraid did not love or care for them, and used financial support as a proxy for that.

Which I hate to say, is pretty much what your father has, in fact, done.

She attends an excellent school and has flourished academically.

That's the only positive thing said about her, and yet it speaks quite a few volumes.

You do not flourish in an excellent school unless one of two things is happening:
- you are an excellent, responsible (very unlikely "manipulative") student
- someone is bribing whoever gives out grades (vanishingly low probability)

Count me highly dubitative of your father's good faith in this matter. He wants her to succeed? Well, it looks like she is. She was rude? Welcome to teenagers. Especially ones who only see their father once every two years, then they have the gall to insult them about their appearances, going so far as to actually admit, as a purported adult, that they would put in writing that their daughter "eats like a pig" and send it to her. Good grief. You only do that when you're in middle school, and even then...

You say you still haven't talked to your sister. That's the very first thing you should do, but NOT as a mediator... as a sister who genuinely wants to get to know her sibling. Leave third-party egos out of this. Get to know your sister for her own sake. She deserves at least one person in this fiasco of immaturity not talking around behind her back. (Nthing that your father needs to back off.)
posted by fraula at 3:16 PM on March 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

I've been an absent, living-in-another-country, dad, not due to my initiative, during the teens of my two kids. The only thing that makes this remotely work is to engage with the kids on their own premises. What your dad needs to do, pronto, is to find ways to re-connect with his daughter, or he'll loose his contact with her for good and will hurt her, and ultimately himself. Talk to him about long term strategies, goals, and regrets.
posted by Namlit at 4:02 PM on March 13, 2013

Although the people encouraging you to be closer to your sister are well-meaning, I fear that will backfire on your sister in a terrible way. Your father, quite frankly, sounds like he has a lot of problems with interpersonal relations and has behaved dreadfully for this girl's entire life towards both her and her mother. Yet he is the one you are defending in your post; clearly your loyalties lie with him (which sounds normal since he did not encourage a healthy relationship between you). Did he treat you this awfully growing up or has he decided she fits the scapegoat role in the dynamic he has created? If he forbids you from having contact with her (something incredibly immature, and yet fitting his desire to hurt her and forcing you to once again be the "good child") will you defie him and take her side? Or would you reject and blame her the way he already has, causing her even more trauma, as one more person in her life proves she is unlovable? If you can't be there for her as a full sister (and sorry, I do have a problem with people ranking hierarchies of family members through terms like half sister, although that may not be your intention) then SHE is better off not developing a relationship with you and opening herself up to vulnerabilities.
posted by saucysault at 4:10 PM on March 13, 2013 [8 favorites]

When I see parents nagging a daughter to lose weight or attacking her looks, it almost always seems to be about the parent's desire to have a trophy that reflects well on themselves, with little or no attention to who the daughter actually is as a person. It sounds to me like your father is framing his relationship with your sister that way, as also shown by his eagerness to brag about her academic success but still judge her harshly and denigrate her as a person.

If someone only cared about me in terms of how I made them look to the rest of the world, and then pretended that was a loving family relationship, I would be resentful as hell, and say so.

If you see a clear way to prevent his email, do that. It will do nothing but harm. I say this as someone whose own family saw years of unpleasantness because of an unkind and judgmental email from my father to one of my siblings.

Otherwise, if I were you, I'd get in the middle as little as possible, even to the point of telling your father you don't want to discuss his grievances against your sister when he raises the subject. And yeah, get to know her, *if* you can do it without causing more damage (per saucysault's warning).
posted by shattersock at 4:32 PM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

What you should do is, don't get involved, don't try to 'mediate'. This isn't your problem, you can't fix it, and if you try all that will happen is that your father, your sister, her mother, her cousin and who knows who else will all get mad AT YOU.

Your father caused the problem, with his immature name-calling and insulting a child, and now he's trying to dump it all in your lap. He may be her father but he isn't really part of her life --- you say he's seen her for a month or so every other year, so he's seen her a total of about 8 months in sixteen years? He doesn't really know her, and he has no right whatsoever to complain about someone else's childrearing methods.

Your 16-year-old sister is being harrassed by someone who is basically a stranger, and it sounds like her anger is completely justified. This near-stranger is complaining about her and insulting her to pretty much anyone he can get to listen, which has to be pretty upsetting all by itself. And now this near-stranger is trying to get OTHER people (you!) to also harass her? No wonder she doesn't want to communicate with him.
posted by easily confused at 4:45 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

My father is a kind, loving, wonderful man, but he and I have always lived in different countries and every single time he gave me gifts of money when I was a child I wanted to rip it up and throw the shreds in his face and shout YOU CAN'T BUY BEING A DAD! CALL ME ON THE PHONE SOMETIMES! FUCK YOUR MONEY!

If on top of being absent he ever wrote me a letter telling me that I am terrible ("terrible" to a child, are you kidding), he would be dead to me. The best help you can give your father is convincing him to send zero such emails.
posted by prefpara at 4:54 PM on March 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

He acknowledges not being around has not helped.

Now that's quite the understatement. Not helped?? Your dad needs to take a good hard look at himself and realize that a lot of what he's complaining about is directly related to the fact that he's been an absent parent.

Tell him he's out of line and he should not send the e-mail at all unless he wants to ensure he has a terrible relationship with this girl forever. She's 16; he's an adult who has played a very big part in creating this situation.

Then refuse to get involved further in the conflict.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:54 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your father has a pretty shitty attitude towards women and girls quite honestly. Apparently if he givens them money or material goods they owe him obedience. You might want to think about that some before deciding what to do.
posted by fshgrl at 10:46 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your dad is the one acting like a spoilt child in this situation.

Now he wants to send her an email that outlines all things he thinks are wrong with her (including that she "looks terrible", "eats like a pig").

It doesn't matter who you are, what your relationship is, or how old you are. Only a stone cold asshole would actually do this. If he actually does this, he will no longer have any sort of relationship with his daughter.

Maybe it would help him to understand if you explained what your reaction would be if he sent you that email

But he also says that it's her responsibility to reinitiate contact. He's acting as though he wants to sever ties although I don't think he really does.

He's the grown up. Even if your half-sister is being pissy, it's his responsibility - as the grown up, and the parent - to be the bigger person. Tell him to man the fuck up and be the parent already.

I think the flash points were that she said she did not love or care for him and was only interested in financial support.

He shows up once every two years. Perhaps she feels that he doesn't love or care for her.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:24 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

First, I think it's important for you to consider that your sister doesn't know your dad the way you do. You presumably have lots of reasons to defend him and think he's a good guy, because you grew up with him behaving like your father. Your sister didn't have the same luxury, and consequently, doesn't have the same feelings toward your dad that you do. I have a much younger "half" sister, and it took some time for me to get used to the idea that her dad is (hopefully) different than my dad, though they're the same person.

As far as your sister's comment that she's only interested in your dad for financial support, it's probably true, and I think she's perfectly entitled to feel that way, all things considered. She barely knows your father, he's behaved like a petulant child toward her, and it sounds as though he's tried to minimize his own role in causing some of her difficulties. I'm older than your sister, and I'm pretty much only interested in my dad for financial support. It sounds shitty, I guess, but your dad can't just barge into her life and expect that she's going to love him like a father because they're biologically related. It doesn't work that way.

Your dad is beyond out-of-line here. Would his girlfriend/partner be receptive to your speaking to her about convincing him not to send the email?

My dad is a pretty enormous asshole and has lived in another country since I was a child. Though I am never surprised by the assy things he does, getting an email from him enumerating my faults would be pretty insulting now, and would have secretly devastated me when I was 16.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 8:04 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

« Older We are living in a material world, and I am a...   |   Where to find opportunities to be around Horses... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.