I had a fight with my sister. What do I do now?
July 20, 2021 6:13 PM   Subscribe

I finally stood up to my hypercritical sister. Now she's not talking to me... *More snowflakes inside...*

My sister came by with her kids (ages 6 and 7) so that my mom could babysit them. I help out because I'm staying with my mom while I go to school.

When they came by to drop the kids off, I had already gone to the store because my mom asked me to buy some groceries and pick up lunch for everyone.

Well, apparently while I was gone, my nephews rented the Godzilla vs Kong movie. They needed a passcode to enter and my mom was the one who entered it.

When my sister and brother-in-law came to pick them up, they found out and my brother-in-law made a comment on how they shouldn’t be watching that. He seemed mad as he loaded them into the car.

My sister sent me a text message that said, “They shouldn’t be watching PG-13 movies. If you don’t want to see them until they’re 13, let me know.”

First of all, I wasn’t home when they rented the movie so I didn’t know. Second of all, I’m not the one in charge. I help out when I'm around, otherwise I have school and work.

I don’t like the threat of them not letting us see the kids, but they’ve said it before to my mom when they were mad.

I was texting my sister and she claimed that she’s said something about what they can and can’t watch. I don’t remember her ever saying anything. I checked emails and texts- there’s nothing!

I brought up the fact that my mom does a lot for them. My sister replied, “Glad to know that she only does this to hold it over us when she wasn’t agreeing with our decision on how we raise our children.”

She then wrote, “I can do this all day.”

This doesn’t seem to just be about the movie. It seems like there’s something more to it, though I’m not sure what.

Whenever they come by my mom’s house and have her babysit, all they do is criticize stuff and get mad at her. Why bring them over then? Again, I understand about the movie, but why am I being blamed when I wasn’t even home and I wasn’t the one who rented it?

I told my sister this and we went back and forth via text message. I suggested that they get a babysitter.

My sister replied, "I'm sorry that it's such an inconvenience for you."

I'm happy to help out, but after you do *anything* for them, they are very critical and become upset with you. We watched their cat and they were upset because the cat lost/gained weight.

My mom stores some of their stuff in boxes and they complain about how their allergies act up and they have to take medicine when they look for stuff/bring it back to their house.

Every little thing upsets them. It's getting old. I finally stood up for myself, but now my sister isn't speaking to me.

I feel proud of myself for saying something, but I feel bad because we probably won't be able to see the kids for a while. (When they're mad, they don't contact us/come over.)

Any thoughts?
posted by Kobayashi Maru to Human Relations (34 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
“No problem. We wouldn’t want to upset you anymore and we’re clearly not capable of looking after your children to your standards so I guess we won’t be babysitting anymore! I’ll see your kids when they’re 13!” Don’t negotiate with terrorists. You did the right thing, give her what she wants and teach her a lesson. Your sister is an asshole and she shouldn’t be rewarded for it or she’ll never change.
posted by Jubey at 6:26 PM on July 20 [86 favorites]

Why is she bringing this to you? Your mom was in charge. Ignore ignore ignore. And don’t watch their kids for them — you know now, for the future.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:38 PM on July 20 [20 favorites]

As you tell it, your sister is an ungrateful complainer who takes advantage of mom's generosity.

It's well possible that it's not about the movie issue being your fault or not your fault, it's about you pushing back that she doesn't like.

Now, what you want to do and what your mom wants to do are going to be different things, potentially, so if Mom decides to resume babysitting for her ungrateful daughter, maybe the reward of getting to spend time with her grandkids is enough for her to overlook the kids mom being an asshole. You can spend time with them or not; you've got your own life and school stuff to look after.

However, don't make your beef with your sister a burden for your mom, because you are not the ungrateful kid, you're grateful that your mom makes a home for you while you study.

I would be willing to bet that your sister is going to keep the kids away from your mom until you grovel. If that happens, talk it over with your mom, but be ready to eat crow. Your living with mom is probably temporary, and you may have to suck up the BS from your sister until you're independent from Mom, at which time you can make your relationship with your sister as little as you want. Principles are nice, but sometimes family obligations mean that asshole family members can and do take advantage. Do your best to prevent mom from being exploited. The relationship you have or don't have with your sister affects your mom as long as you live there.
posted by Sunburnt at 6:42 PM on July 20 [8 favorites]

We're currently in a similar situation (with a different set of events, obviously, but the same passive aggressive outcome). After it repeated over and over, we eventually just said "okay". Honestly, it hurts going from seeing the kids every day to not seeing the kids at all for a while, but it's also been a relief to not be constantly walking on eggshells around their mom.

Which is the balancing act - I would say that, at some point you have to call their bluff, otherwise you just spend so much energy second guessing that it becomes not worth it.
posted by jaymzjulian at 6:59 PM on July 20 [9 favorites]

Don't engage at this point. You have better things to do! You could even say something like, "we're happy to help, but can't do as good a job as you do". But at this point I'd enjoy the break from helping all the time. You can't control what she does or says, only how you react.
posted by ldthomps at 7:08 PM on July 20 [4 favorites]

She’ll be back to take advantage of free childcare before you know it, so don’t let yourself get taken for an emotional roller coaster ride because of the threat of not seeing the kids. Same with not speaking to you: she clearly loves conflict and will be texting you again soon enough.

This one sounds like your mom’s fight. Next time she tries to wrap you in a conflict like that, simply disengage. She’s coming to you because she gets to pour out all her big important feelings on someone who will react.

It’s your mom’s decision to continue to do this for her or not. If she decides to continue, well, she knows what your sister’s like. You know what shuts down hypercritical complainers? “Okay. Thanks for your feedback.” You know what makes hypercritical complainers say “I can do this all day?” Arguing with them.

You can’t change her but you can change how satisfying it is for her to fight with you.
posted by kapers at 7:11 PM on July 20 [60 favorites]

OK, your sister does sound really ungracious. It's a problem.

And sticking you in the middle and blaming you... on the surface it's nonsense, but I don't know the whole story.

On your Mom's side, though, there's maybe some trivializing of important issues -- a PG-13 movie for a 7 year old is a lot; a cat losing, or gaining, weight can be a huge deal, health wise (especially losing weight); and maybe your Mom doesn't take your sister's allergies seriously when they _should_ be taken seriously.

If you're trivializing stuff like this, of course it's not great. It may be that she just assumes you will because her guard's up all the time.

If that kind of thing is going on -- and I'm not saying it is, just raising a possible explanation -- then I would advise your sister to distance herself, unless she really really had zero resources and needed the child care.
posted by amtho at 7:21 PM on July 20 [9 favorites]

She sounds like a bully. It's really reasonable for parents to restrict their kids' media content, but it sounds like she was super-aggressive about it and escalated rapidly. You stood up for yourself, but you did it the same way your sister does, with anger, accusations and drama. Next time, say what you think, then shut up. Your sister might enjoy drama, why indulge her? And don't speak for your Mom or pull her in; your Mom gets to speak for herself.
posted by theora55 at 7:37 PM on July 20 [5 favorites]

In this situation the words "I can do this all day" are the words of someone enjoying a fight, intoxicated on their self-righteous anger, high on the emotional rush of the conflict and drama. They will continue to seek out that high, likely by provoking you. If they don't get it from you they will seek it from someone else. I advise a disengagement strategy. The tactics you will have to tailor to the situation as you see fit.
posted by glonous keming at 7:49 PM on July 20 [67 favorites]

My sister sent me a text message that said, “They shouldn’t be watching PG-13 movies. If you don’t want to see them until they’re 13, let me know.”

Appropriate responses:
"That sounds like a fair boundary to establish. I hope you speak with mom about it."
"I would not have chosen to allow them to watch that movie and I'm sorry it happened."

Drama-inducing responses:
"Well, mom does a lot for you."
"Look, they're pretty mature, and, besides, I spent 15 minutes looking through emails and texts and you never told me PG-13 is inappropriate for 7 year olds"

Whenever they come by my mom’s house and have her babysit, all they do is criticize stuff and get mad at her.

Not your monkey, not your circus. You're inviting drama and getting drama in return.
posted by flimflam at 7:55 PM on July 20 [101 favorites]

The problem here is that the boundary being set -- don't show the kids a PG-13 movie -- is a reasonable one that is hers to set. Besides staying out of this particular fight, as others have said, I think you need to find a way to articulate what your boundary with her is or what request you have for her in a concise statement and then think about when to bring it up. Harriet Lerner writes some good books on this topic, like The Dance of Intimacy. On preview, I like flimflam's comment.
posted by slidell at 8:02 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]

Don’t worry about not seeing the kids, your sister will be back for her free babysitting sooner than you think.

Next time she tries to draw you into something like that, say “you’ll have to talk to mom about that, I wasn’t around/involved,” and then don’t answer any more texts until she drops the subject.

As others have mentioned, your sister is a bully who enjoys drama. You might find depriving her of that pleasure very satisfying.
posted by rpfields at 8:21 PM on July 20 [17 favorites]

1. Don't get between your sister and your mother. First response to her threat is "I didn't let give them the passcode - that was Mom's decision. Talk to her." Period. End of conversation.

2. Only do for your sister what you are willing to do, knowing in advance how she will respond. In other words, if your mother decides to babysit and you want to help out your mother, then do it. If your sister asks for a more personal favor or you don't want to help out, politely decline.
posted by metahawk at 8:38 PM on July 20 [8 favorites]

I would imagine that you responded to your sister in the first place to defend yourself, and to point out how much your mom does for her. Please notice that your sister didn't register either of those things - didn't acknowledge you weren't to blame for the movie, didn't express appreciation for the free babysitting, or anything of the sort. I am guessing this is far from the first time you've tried to get her to see your side of something only to get embroiled in an exhausting and utterly unwinnable back and forth, because - as she flat out told you, she can "do this all day."

Do YOU want to do that all day? Good lord, I hope not.

Next time she reaches out with obvious bait to start yet another round of this pointless, draining drama, remember that nothing you can say will get her to be nice to you. She's not trying to strengthen her relationship with you, she's not trying to improve communication with you; she's looking to get whatever she gets out of fighting with you and being the "wronged" party. You can't fix this, because you never broke it in the first place.

Do yourself a kindness and do not engage. Kapers' response of "okay. Thanks for the feedback." is perfect - it's not going to make her see your side of things, but neither is an anything else you could possibly say. Cut off her supply, don't respond - the only reason she can meaningfully do this all day is that you're engaging. Stop doing that and (even if the momentum of whatever she's feeling still impels her to keep firing angry texts at you for a while before she loses steam - and btw, you don't have to read those!) at least you'll save yourself your part in these the frustrating, pointless go-rounds.

It really is okay to not engage.
posted by DingoMutt at 10:50 PM on July 20 [8 favorites]

Arg. I have had very similar situations with my brother, his kids, and my mum. I actually agree with what my brother is asking my mum not to do (no fizzy drinks, fewer sweets, less screen time), but the way he 'asks' is not great. The drama is real - I feel for you as I don't live with them, so at least I can escape!

The main lesson I have learned is to set my own boundaries for both my mum and my brother and his family. If they have a problem with something the other one does, they need to talk to each other about it and not use me or the kids as pawns. A therapist once told be about 'triangulation' in families, and it was very useful to read about it and realise it was common and happening to me in lots of situations (i.e. the first example in the wiki article!). Wiki article here.

So I agree with the advice above not to engage and/or shrug off as it is not your issue. I just try to focus on spending time with my niece and nephew, although I appreciate that's easier when I'm not living there! So, a 'yes, I understand, but you'll need to talk to mom', is how I try to roll.

Good luck!
posted by sedimentary_deer at 1:52 AM on July 21 [5 favorites]

My sister sent me a text message that said, “They shouldn’t be watching PG-13 movies. If you don’t want to see them until they’re 13, let me know.”

Appropriate response:

You don't need to respond to every aggrieved text that your sister sends.
posted by shoesietart at 3:55 AM on July 21 [8 favorites]

I agree with other commenters who say you don't need to choose this battle unless you wish to, and that her attitude seems rude and uncalled for. But I feel most closely aligned with amtho's take. When you say "every little thing upsets them," perhaps they feel that their sincere concerns aren't being heard or taken seriously. What you're lumping into one personality trait does seem to break down into discrete issues that may come from a reasonable place. My shields might be up too if I felt like nobody was listening to me.

And by the way, I'm sorry you're going through this. Family stuff like this can be extremely hard. Years of baggage, mistrust, miscommunication and divergent expectations and needs can really add up.
posted by thejoshu at 5:19 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]

It sounds like they will probably be over with the kids at some point, even if it takes a while.

Like others, I'd really recommend not getting involved in arguments between your mother and your sister. The movie had nothing to do with you, is not your problem, and you don't need to defend your mother's decisions. Since your sister has told you that she enjoys the drama of the text message argument, and your question suggests that you don't, the best way to win is to not respond. Or at least, not respond when it's not about you - perhaps "take it up with mom" on the first message at most, and then ignore.
posted by plonkee at 5:50 AM on July 21 [3 favorites]

Your sister is uncomfortable with her need for help with babysitting so she chooses to think of it as something she's giving you--an opportunity to see the kids. She feels her dependency on her family is weak and she feels stronger when she's judging you and angry. You can't solve this problem by anything you do so recognize this and don't get into struggles with her. Just say Sorry, or OK, or ignore.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:54 AM on July 21 [9 favorites]

>It seems like there’s something more to it, though I’m not sure what.

She said herself that she thinks your mom disagrees with how they're raising their children/living their life, and that your sister seems to feel that your mom is using doing nice stuff as leverage to otherwise disrespect your sister. That seems like a pretty big "more to it," clearly stated, and she's well within her right to decide she doesn't want to play that game any more.

If you disagree with her interpretation, you're well within *your* rights to stick up for yourself and your mom, but she outlined the consequences. You don't get to force your sister to act grateful that her 6 year old's going to have monster nightmares for the next month.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:04 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]

Don't conduct emotionally fraught conversations over text. Face to face is best, phone if you must. But not via text. Not only does text fail to capture tone of voice, it hangs about; any tiny ill-considered throw-away remark that would have flown by and been forgotten in the course of a face to face discussion just sits there on the screen inviting itself to be read again and again, until the worst possible interpretation of it can bubble to the surface of the brain and provoke the most furious possible response.

Conducting potentially emotionally loaded conversations over text is asking to have the drama level ramped up to 11 for no good reason. Just don't do it.

I've been handing that advice out for years now. It's really good advice.

Almost nobody takes it.

People who do take it find that their lives improve as a result.
posted by flabdablet at 6:35 AM on July 21 [13 favorites]

My mother-in-law has saved our lives during the pandemic by coming over and looking after the kids nearly every day, which has allowed my wife and I to keep our jobs. We pay her but she is doing us a tremendous service to do this.

At the same time, it has been a source of frustration for us that she is far laxer on things like the frequency of snacks and the nutritional content of those snacks; she takes the kids to get fast food far more often than we would like (several times a week); she buys the kids all manner of toys that add to the mess of our house; she lets them watch TV instead of sending them outside. My wife and I try to establish boundaries and she finds loopholes and ways around them, and sometimes disregards them entirely.

So while we are tremendously grateful to her we are also sometimes frustrated at the same time, and that is a difficult set of emotions to navigate, especially at a time like this pandemic. Also, it's worth mentioning that a large part of the reason we wanted my mother-in-law to do child care is to be able to bubble with them during COVID so that they would not be totally isolated; at all times our choices were either to hire a part-time nanny and just not see the in-laws until the end of the pandemic, or have my mother-in-law watch the kids and keep disregarding our boundaries.

I say all of this to point out that it is at least possible that your sister's tone and pattern of criticism is coming from a place of having had her own boundaries about child care disrespected but perhaps not having a good alternative. She may have competing priorities of WANTING her children to see and spend time with family and ALSO wanting her children to be raised according to her values.

You've characterized her as being relentlessly critical of how you and your mom look after the children, but the specific instance here is one that I kind of have to give to her: her children are HALF THE RECOMMENDED AGE for the movie that they got to watch.

So, I agree that it seems like your sister may have been impolitic in coming to you with this issue at all, seeing as how you were not in the room when it happened, but it might also be the case that she has gone direct to your mom with issues like this all this time, and maybe your mom is yessing her out of the room and then doing whatever she wants with the kids anyway, and your sister has given up trying to talk to her and is coming to you instead out of frustration. I don't know whether any of these things are the case, but it is at least possible that some of them are, and I encourage you to consider this before you jump right to your sister being a terrible person who is not worth your time or consideration.
posted by gauche at 8:08 AM on July 21 [6 favorites]

I'd had a comment, but it's really just what Jubey said.

Volunteer at a youth center or nanny for $20-30/hr (care.com) if you need young-person time. (Also, you probably deserve pay for your labor, especially with this kind of manager)

This kind of thing may circulate until she's well into age, and unfortunately her children are probably a bargaining piece sometimes. Stay away until she learns to value you. Sometimes space is the only language that really talks.

The children she has are likely absorbing her subtle and not subtle behavior.
posted by firstdaffodils at 8:20 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you have a family dynamic that operates largely in button-pushing and defensiveness. You didn't "stand up" for yourself, standing up for yourself would have been to say "I wasn't even here, my input was not involved in any way, take it up with mom" and maybe "that was a bad choice, but it wasn't mine" but instead you just pushed buttons back, so now you're on record defending showing an inappropriate movie to a child and claiming that harm is justifiable if you're doing their parents a favor. Was that really the hill you wanted to defend? Are those values you're proud of? Is there other harm you think kids deserve because their parents acted some way or another? Do you not think your sister should be the one setting the boundaries for her kids?

You have to choose whether you want to play the fun game or whether you want to decide and enforce boundaries - your own boundaries, nobody else's. If you decide to do that, you can pat yourself on the back for standing up for yourself.

While your sister sounds like she is also very into the family button-pushing game and having free childcare is a privilege, it's also a really fraught one. She probably should find other arrangements where the power differential is more clear-cut since it's too hard to communicate clearly and cooperatively with you and your mother, but that's probably going to alter their lives quite a bit.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:41 AM on July 21 [17 favorites]

Formula for disaster: Communicate about difficult and emotionally laden subjects via text. These kind of conversations are always difficult, and texting by nature exacerbates the heck out of all the difficulties. The second a conversation begins to move off the rails it is time to move it off text. Phone if necessary, face to face far better.
posted by jcworth at 9:00 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]

There's a bigger question here in terms of "what do I do now?". Obviously other posters have correctly pointed out that you need to disengage and de-escalate this particular fight. But you also need to ask another question: "what do I want my relationship with my sister to be, independent of my mother?"

Do you and your sister ever hang out or chat or text beyond logistics related to her/her kids visiting your mom's house? Do you have things in common? Do you want to have a relationship with her in the future, when you've left your mom's house? Take some time to think about these questions because they may guide you to what to do next, how to interact with your sister outside of the current "my sister is demanding and then complains a bunch" dynamic.
posted by you'rerightyou'rerightiknowyou'reright at 9:30 AM on July 21

In this specific instance, sounds like you were both being quite shitty. I think you were being shittier, though.

Her opening salvo: “They shouldn’t be watching PG-13 movies. If you don’t want to see them until they’re 13, let me know.” is super passive-aggressive and snarky. A reasonable thing for her to text would be sth like "hey, the kids are too young for PG13 movies, can you make sure they don't watch them in the future?"

But your response was an immediate escalation! Irrespective of her initial text, yours would have been much better to be sth like "Yeah, you're right. however I wasn't there today, so it wasn't my call, you'll need to take that up with Mom. For sure, if I'm there, they won't be watching PG13 movies"

And that really should be all that needs to be said.

You said she's made that threat all the time. Yeah, that sucks. But you shouldn't escalate. What's the point? You all know the kids are gonna keep coming to your place, why let the resentment and nastiness simmer?
posted by gaspode at 10:10 AM on July 21 [5 favorites]

Ughhhh. No matter what family dynamics are going on in the background and whether your sister actually does have a reason for feeling frustration as some posters have touched on, engaging with this particularly gross brand of snark and passive-aggression should absolutely be avoided at all costs. It is never, ever going to lead anywhere productive or toward actual problem-solving. No escalation, absolutely no texting back and forth, no inviting further drama. State a proper boundary, there are some very good examples in this thread, and do not continue discussion beyond that.

Her: "They shouldn’t be watching PG-13 movies. If you don’t want to see them until they’re 13, let me know."

You: "Agree on the movie. I actually wasn't home when it was selected or I would have intervened. Let's plan to give Mom a heads-up on checking ratings when nephews choose movies going forward so it doesn't happen again."

posted by anderjen at 12:09 PM on July 21 [3 favorites]

I find it interesting that your sister is treating you and your mother interchangeably, as if you're just the more available part of one person. And that you are reacting as if you and your mother are interchangeable, too! You're fighting her fights as if they're your own.

The above good advice on disengaging relies on you recognising that you are your own person whose quibbles with your sister are distinct from your mom's, and on communicating this to your sister by not picking up your mom's problems.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:16 PM on July 21 [16 favorites]

I strongly disagree that you're the shittier one for getting defensive when your sister was being an asshole to you. But, it is pointless to try to have a productive conversation with someone like this. I recommend Stop Walking on Eggshells. It's helped my mom deal with my sister-in-law, who does this sort of thing all the time.
posted by Mavri at 3:27 PM on July 21 [3 favorites]

What comes to mind is detach with love.
posted by soakimbo at 9:31 PM on July 21 [2 favorites]

Oh my God! Please don't listen to anyone saying you are in any way at fault. Your sister is an adult, so is her partner. If they have problems with the level of your mom's babysitting/petsitting they are free to go get a professional who they will have to PAY. When you are asking big huge favors of people you don't get to be a snarky asshole when they don't preform the task exactly the way you would. As for her threatening to keep the kids from seeing you guys, that's sick. Anybody who uses time with a child as a bargaining chip is a nasty human being.

Tell your sister to leave you out of her squabbles with your mom. If she tries to argue tell her you have to go. Just refuse to engage with her. Unfortunately you can't control whether or not your mom wants to continue babysitting but you can refuse to be pulled into your sisters shitstorm of entitlement and nastiness.

If your mom is upset reassure her that sister will come around soon enough. Believe me, she needs the free babysitting more than she knows.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 10:51 AM on July 22 [4 favorites]

My sister sent me a text message that said, “They shouldn’t be watching PG-13 movies. If you don’t want to see them until they’re 13, let me know.”

This seems like the right time to write my favourite response to baiting, dramatic criticism :

posted by honey-barbara at 4:01 AM on July 23 [7 favorites]

Bit late, but: I literally would not respond with anything. Let the next message in the chain be initiated by her, asking you for free babysitting. Since it's preceded by her calling you out for something you didn't even do, she either won't do it, or will feel like a dweeb. Either way, you win.
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:33 PM on July 27 [1 favorite]

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