Help me 27F healthily approach sister 20F, Thanksgiving is a shitshow.
November 25, 2016 5:50 PM   Subscribe

Emotionally unstable sister (20F) brought home boyfriend, broke up spectacularly (like the 6th time) just now with lots of cursing and screaming, Mom is interfering and bringing them back together to talk it out. How do I help my sister who lashes out brutally at everyone when she's upset?

Background: our childhood had a lot of parental fighting, verbal abuse, and insane pressure to perform, mostly from Mom. Relationships are mending now after a period of estrangement and the death of our grandmother, which brought everyone back together with softer hearts.

My sister is funny, warm, sweet, smart, lovely and we have always been pretty close. After starting college, she's been really struggling to adjust to studying and social life (minority in a 99% white Southern university) and has become involved in self-destructive behaviors and relationships (drinking and sleeping with a lot of people). When upset, a switch flips and she becomes a monster saying the cruelest things she can and cursing you out (and everyone becomes the enemy). Last year something traumatic happened to me, and while visiting to comfort me she cursed me out and ran away to sleep in a public park (over a perceived slight when I asked her to look up an address), I looked for her and called the police to find her and it was horribly stressful on top of everything else. We didn't speak for several months after.

I've tried my best to be there for her, and call her multiple times a week just to be a friend and an ear. I'm militantly committed to never talking like my mother, so am careful to be calm and never put her down or personally attack her, but try to provide unconditional love and support and a non-judgmental place to turn to if she ever needs safety. We've talked honestly and seriously about respectful communication and how taking out your anger on someone is not ok.

This Thanksgiving she brought home her boyfriend, they broke up for about the 6th time screaming at a Wal Mart and also woke the neighborhood at home, my sister cursed me out for not caring about her and listening correctly (I had been holding her hand and not giving advice yet, I can't do anything right when she's hysterical and lashing out at everyone). And now my mom has brought the boyfriend home for them to talk it out rather than the airport, whereas I think that's crazy, they are horribly toxic to each other and need to get the fuck away from each other asap.

How do I help my sister out? I've done so much personal work through therapy, self-help books, psychology texts, and experience with bad relationships to get to a pretty good idea of healthy boundaries and self-care. I'm starting to feel like I really hate her, she is so destructive and hurtful to be around and doesn't take responsibility for her actions. I also understand at the core how desperately she wants to feel safe and loved, and I feel like I have a duty to help right the wrongs of the childhood abuse we shared; she's my little sister, I love her a lot, and I'm the closest one to her with knowledge of healthy relationship dynamics to share with her.

Has anyone had experience with this as someone who has grown out of a dysfunctional family and has a sibling who seems to not be coping or learning a way out? Is she just really young right now and will figure it out after suffering enough from coping maladaptively (as I did)? Do I institute distance and boundaries with her repeatedly treating me poorly, or would that be abandoning her when she doesn't know better how to emotionally regulate and when she could most use someone willing to be patient with and love her? Am I too concerned about "saving" her and should I let her go to suffer her own choices and consequences?

This is really stressful and I'm trying to balance self-care with helping my sister who I love a whole lot and am worried about. My mom has changed a lot but I think her call to mediate the breakup is grossly unhealthy here. Thanks for reading the whole story and really appreciate your perspectives here.
posted by pengwings to Human Relations (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
"Do I institute distance and boundaries with her repeatedly treating me poorly, or would that be abandoning her when she doesn't know better how to emotionally regulate and when she could most use someone willing to be patient with and love her?"

Perhaps it would help look at the situation another way: by setting up healthy boundaries, you are not abandoning her. By acting as she does, she is abandoning you.
posted by 4ster at 6:16 PM on November 25, 2016 [15 favorites]


I should add that you sound like a wonderful person and she is lucky to have you. I know this is tremendously difficult.
posted by 4ster at 6:17 PM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


Aww. Your poor sister, man. She's doing it all wrong.

It sounds like your sister has sustained a lot of trauma over her short life, which adversely effects someone both emotionally and physically. Like, the amygdala in the brain can get totally effed up from abuse. It's no wonder your sister is having trouble processing simple interactions. She's really having a tough time.

Your sister needs therapy and healthy practices to get her back on track. She needs coping skills + an understanding that she does NOT have to live this way. With help she can overcome her reactions to things. She's suffering. Find a way to connect her to professionals that can help her.

Does she want to live this way? Find out. If she wants help, connect her to help.
posted by jbenben at 6:58 PM on November 25, 2016 [8 favorites]


How do I help my sister out? I've done so much personal work through therapy, self-help books, psychology texts, and experience with bad relationships to get to a pretty good idea of healthy boundaries and self-care. I'm starting to feel like I really hate her, she is so destructive and hurtful to be around and doesn't take responsibility for her actions.

I'm very sorry, because this sounds very difficult for all of you.

It may be that you aren't the right person to help her-- I think what you wrote here above is really natural. She's not just your sister in this scenario, she's also the alternate you. You're still very young yourself, so it must be frightening to see what's happening to her now. (There but for the Grace of God, etc.)

I think at 20, she still has a lot of time to sort it out and she may need to do that differently than you. It may be really hard to watch, I recognise that. FWIW, I grew up in a dysfunctional family, and at 20 I was a hot mess and my sister was the grown-up one. It took me until my mid twenties to sort myself out, and I think that's pretty normal.

I've since learned that in dysfunctional homes, one child has the role of acting out, while the other has the role of healing rifts. Neither of those roles are destiny, but at 20-- she may not be willing to give up being angry at everyone yet.

I would set your own boundaries, and not allow her to treat you badly. That can be as simple as saying clearly that the next time she lashes out, you will physically separate yourself until she calms down and can talk respectfully again.

But make sure that you do that in response to her genuinely lashing out, and not in response to what you perceive as poor life choices. Remember, she isn't hurting you if she doesn't take your advice. She's just not taking your advice. If you can be as neutral as possible, then there's a better chance that when she does decide to recover, you can be an important part of her support network.
posted by frumiousb at 7:03 PM on November 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


No judgment on you and your take on the situation, but would it help to try to approach all these conversations with your sister as seeing eye to eye, or understanding her, and using less polarizing language like "self-destructive behaviors"? I mean, unless we're talking multiple hospital visits for alcohol poisoning, or pregnancies and STDs, most college kids drink and sleep around. That's not completely unheard of behavior from a 20 year old, even if it might be suboptimal. Same with the boyfriend stuff. Is this all super annoying? Yes. But it's not really your business, and it's fairly par for the course with younger people who don't have the relationship skills to handle things in a more mature way. Aside from supporting her in whatever way she wants to be supported, there is nothing for you to do and no way to "handle" the situation.

Instead of calling the cops when she storms out, why not give her an hour to cool off and then text something supportive that reminds her that you're not the enemy?

I'm the oldest of several siblings, and I was always "the good one". Sometimes it's hard for me to put down the lecturing tone and just listen. You say that you are doing this, but she's not acting like she thinks you're doing this. Can you go even further? Obviously, another thing that tends to happen in family dynamics is that someone does something a few times, and suddenly it's That Thing You Always Do. So some of this may be trying to win some ground with her even if she isn't receptive right away.
posted by Sara C. at 7:22 PM on November 25, 2016 [12 favorites]


No one can save another person like this - it can be heartbreaking to watch but no matter what you do (and why you put up with) you can't do the saving - she has to decide to change and do the work herself.

People can support her in changing but only when she is ready - you can't teach a person who is not interested in learning.

You are her therapist - not her sister. Which means that when she is ready, you can offer emotional support, the occasional suggestion, sometimes even practical support but you are not in the right position to teach her how to heal herself. Understanding the difference will help you approach her (when she is ready) in ways that will work better for both of you.

Finally, you can still love her unconditionally but have healthy boundaries around behavior that hurts you. I'm sure you never saw anyone in your family pull this off but it is the loving parent who says the child "I know you are angry but I won't let you call me bad names. Go to your room and come out when you use polite language." Same with sister - you can love her for being her true self but refuse to be around her when she hurtful. The difference is that you always leave the door open to try again when she wants to reconcile. It is hard and it may be years but the act is also a beautiful way to teach by example that boundaries can set with love.

Good Luck.
posted by metahawk at 7:33 PM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


When people have grown up without boundaries around behaviour, it's hard to learn them.

By establishing your own boundaries and sticking to them, and then being willing to discuss, she'll have a spot in her life where her behaviour is not okay. And that's how she'll have a sense that she needs to change it. I would recommend:

- leaving the room or house if she is yelling or being mean
- say clearly, "I won't allow you to speak to me like that," and following through by leaving/hanging up.
- don't let her rant about her boyfriend...change the subject or leave
- model empathy "your boyfriend must feel so embarrassed and demeaned"

Don't mistake "not being like your mother" for "accepting people's bad behaviour."
posted by warriorqueen at 9:08 PM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


I could have written your post 15 years ago. I wish I had answers, but the truth is that I haven't spoken to my sister in five years and my life has been so much better. I'm not saying that your sister can't be helped, but I'm echoing that you are not the one who can help her. The kind of upbringing you describe can absolutely lead to personality disorders that only trained professionals can treat.

I think that one day they'll discover some sort of resilience gene, which will help explain how some children escape abuse relatively unscathed and others are deeply wounded. I know that the guilt I felt for being "ok" led me to enable my sister in ways that were neither healthy or helpful. I'd consider therapy for yourself to help you navigate this.
posted by snickerdoodle at 11:07 PM on November 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


Has anyone had experience with this as someone who has grown out of a dysfunctional family and has a sibling who seems to not be coping or learning a way out?
Yes! As difficult as it was, I just had to let him grow in his own way, on his own time?

Is she just really young right now and will figure it out after suffering enough from coping maladaptively (as I did)?
Yes, it would seem that way.

Do I institute distance and boundaries with her repeatedly treating me poorly, or would that be abandoning her when she doesn't know better how to emotionally regulate and when she could most use someone willing to be patient with and love her?
Instituting and enforcing boundaries is absolutely being loving.

Am I too concerned about "saving" her and should I let her go to suffer her own choices and consequences?
Yes.
posted by RainyJay at 12:40 AM on November 26, 2016


Right now, let your mother do the heavy lifting with your sister. Tend to your own feelings of irritation and anxiety by doing the self talk you've probably learned in therapy. This situation duplicates the conflicts of so much of your past, bringing up all the former dificult times where simply trying to be together has been fraught and painful. As an eldest child too, I know the desire to fix things and panic at watching bullshit unfold. Here, I would say to myself - 'I don't agree with my mother's handling of this situation, but I don't have to be in charge' or 'my sister has to work out her conflicts as a young adult, even if she's not doing it in my preferred manner' (as you say, you did your share of growing through your relationship history) or 'I am going to love my sister but I am not going to have my mood and sense of self controlled by her' - in other words, step back and try to let your mother do her thing. If your sister curses at you, walk away after you tell her you'll talk it out with her, if she wants that, when she's calmer, and then do that.
posted by honey-barbara at 12:41 AM on November 26, 2016


I would call a friend and go to a movie. It sounds like it's time for you to set a boundary... don't be at her beck and call. Give her some space and check back in tomorrow.
posted by bendy at 2:59 AM on November 26, 2016 [3 favorites]


Thank you for your responses, each has given me something valuable to consider and a way to look at the big picture. And the compassion coming through was a big comfort. I will try to stay mindful and not reactive through the rest of this weekend, and try to detach overall from guiding my sister too much, and employ firm kind boundaries when conflict crops up. And - lighten up and enjoy my own life a bit :) Take care out there everyone!
posted by pengwings at 8:54 AM on November 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Demonstrating healthy boundaries (and sticking to them) is a really important way to model healthy self-care! Happy holidays.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 5:18 PM on November 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm glad you already got so many answers you find helpful, but this question really resonated with me since I'm a sooooort of dysfunctional little sister with a very competent older sister. I'm going to mostly be repeating what other people have said, but I thought it might be helpful for you to hear my perspective on my similar relationship with my (super awesome) sister.

I would say that in general I hate it when people tell me what I should do about my life but I'm more able to take things on when they tell me what THEY did about THEIR life. Like, a couple times my sister has tried to help me by fiat, and even though I objectively needed to do the stuff she was "helping" me with, I wasn't ready to accept help and I basically chewed my own arm off trying to get away. On the other hand, when we've just been shooting the shit and sharing stuff as equals, I've been more comfortable to ask for help and she's been happy to give it. I still get all panicked and stressed when talking out my problems with other people, but I've solved a bunch of problems I never told anyone about because my sister or my friends told me they had had that problem and how they solved it.

I get the impression from your question that you are trying to litigate each tantrum and explain why you didn't mean the thing you said, why her boyfriend is bad for her, why she shouldn't yell or say x hurtful thing, etc, when the underlying problem is that she has inappropriate outbursts when she feels strong emotions. I would start leaving the room/hanging up during the tantrums (I do this with a family member, and they still have tantrums and they still suck but I at least don't have to listen to them for their duration like I did before or hear all about my or the world's flaws) and mentioning during calm, quiet times that you felt overwhelmed by your emotions and your dating relationships when you were younger, and that therapy really helped you. It's true and has the benefit of normalizing a scary but probably very helpful solution to a problem she has.

In general, I would stop giving her advice she doesn't ask for and just treat her more like a friend than a project you have to fix. If she tells you about a problem, emphasize/sympathize but don't give advice unless she asks. Tell her that you know things are hard but you have confidence in her, remind her of times she's persevered in the past, etc. Tell her things you admire about her. Have zero tolerance for the tantrums, but still have love and care for her. I'm hoping for the best for the both of you.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 8:47 PM on November 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Last year something traumatic happened to me, and while visiting to comfort me she cursed me out and ran away to sleep in a public park (over a perceived slight when I asked her to look up an address), I looked for her and called the police to find her and it was horribly stressful on top of everything else.

Children 'run away'. Your sister, her appalling behaviour aside, is not a child. She didn't 'run away'. She left. She was entitled to do so.

If she walks out in a huff, you don't need to go look for her. You don't need to call the cops. She's an adult. She can take care of herself. If she wants to sleep in a park instead of your place, or even checking into a motel, that's her business.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:19 PM on November 27, 2016


Children 'run away'. Your sister, her appalling behaviour aside, is not a child.

She was an emotionally compromised 18 or 19 year old with a pretty severe and probably traumatic childhood. This kind of hard and harsh approach is out of context and not really feasible.


When upset, a switch flips and she becomes a monster saying the cruelest things she can and cursing you out (and everyone becomes the enemy)

Woo. Hello my sister at that age! We were also very, very close, had a traumatic childhood. I held her hand most of our lives, and she had a horrible, horrible temper. Here is what I did and thought in that situation:

1)She is lashing out because she is either mad at herself, or the situation. But she feels broken and vulnerable and to turn that anger inward would be too devastating, so she points it outward. This is very unhealthy and she should go to therapy for it. Maybe suggest helping her find counseling on campus? This is probably especially hard since she is a minority on campus, as if college wasn't hard enough. She probably faces constant othering, sometimes even hate. I can't imagine what that's like.

2)Do not engage with her right when the trigger happens. You need to set healthy boundaries. If you are committed to keeping a relationship with her, you need to save yourself. It sucks, but she needs to throw the temper tantrum on her own. You are a strong, amazing sister for being there for her. But you need to change the way you are there. And she needs to know that's what is happening - you are not abandoning her, you just refuse to take any more abuse. When she starts name calling just say "Sister, I'm just trying to help. You're hurting my feelings/You're not being fair to me/You're being too violent". If she replies harshly, like "I don't need your help" just reply with "Okay, then I'll go." And leave.

3) After her tantrum and vitriol runs it's course, approach her softly. She is probably really embarrassed and hurt and confused, since you've been there for her before, but not now. Ask her if she's feeling better. invite her out to a distraction, like a movie. Let her know you love her but things have to change. This is going to be a slow process, and I wouldn't suggest trying to do it all at once, or having a big sit down where there's a planned conversation and it could get heated.


This is going to be a hard road, but I promise it will get easier. She is young, in a new, hostile place, and in need of professional. She is so, so lucky to have you. Get the distance you need. Having a relationship with her while maintaining a steady but healthy boundary means everything will start to work itself out.
posted by FirstMateKate at 7:10 AM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Snarl Furillo and FirstMateKate, thanks so much for your POVs, it's really helpful and such a relief to talk about this with people who understand such a specific similar situation. I have given my thoughts on therapy and university resources to her, but right now she doesn't "like" therapists and doesn't want to see one.

Just to clarify on the police thing, it was to locate her. She had been staying at my apartment and ran off without coat, wallet, or phone into the winter night in Brooklyn NY. (literally started sprinting when I tried to follow her) I was panicking over her possibly getting lost and assaulted in an unfamiliar city.

I'm going to keep following the really good boundary scripts given here, and re-engaging when she's calmer. I'm frustrated because I've mostly been doing that already, and I'm tired of the larger pattern of shitty behavior and apologies that hasn't been changing. I'm tired of being both her punching bag and hand to hold whenever it suits her. I guess MY feelings are telling me I need more distance, no shade on her journey and that she's doing her best. I think it's my fault that I got emotionally over-involved.

Thanks again.
posted by pengwings at 10:58 AM on December 2, 2016


I think remembering that my appropriate role is as her sister, and not her therapist/savior, is a key concept I will try to stick with. <3
posted by pengwings at 11:07 AM on December 2, 2016


Just to clarify on the police thing, it was to locate her. She had been staying at my apartment and ran off without coat, wallet, or phone into the winter night in Brooklyn NY. (literally started sprinting when I tried to follow her) I was panicking over her possibly getting lost and assaulted in an unfamiliar city.

With that context, yes, my comment above seems unduly harsh and unwarranted. Obviously, looking for her is the right thing to do in that scenario. My apologies.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:43 PM on December 4, 2016


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