My sister treats my parents badly
August 29, 2006 2:13 PM   Subscribe

My 29-year old sister is dependent on my parents to a very unhealthy degree. She refuses to counseling, and seems to be more and more of a burden on them which each passing year. She can be extremely verbally abusive towards my parents and it just breaks my heart to see her treat them this way. How can I encourage her to develop her own life and interests? How can I help my parents to stop feeling like they have to coddle her?

My sister has no friends. She has never been involved in any romantic relationships, either. She does have a college degree (graduated with a 3.95 GPA) but she chooses to work in low-paying jobs. She has never held a job longer than a year. She perceives none of this as her fault, and blames my parents. Seriously, she’ll fly into a tear-filled rage and blame them for not taking her to more play dates when she was little.

Years ago, she was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, depression, and obsessive compulsive personality disorder. She briefly sought counseling but then gave it up.

She does have her own apt. (my parents co-signed for her just to get her out of the house) but she stays at their house every single weekend. She calls them every single day and leaves angry messages on their answering machine threatening to hurt herself if they don’t answer the phone. I am sick of having my parents deal with this emotional blackmail. My parents are in their 60s. My mom has had a stroke and is blind in one eye. My dad has health issues as well. This is having a SERIOUS impact on their quality of life.

So, in short, what can I do? I no longer feel sorry for my sister as she continues to make the same bad choices over and over again, but I am extremely concerned about my parents.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Your parents have to make a choice to stop allowing the verbal abuse.
posted by chiababe at 2:37 PM on August 29, 2006

Unfortunately, it sounds like your sister isn't the only one making the same bad choices over and over again. Your parents, although motivated by love for your sister (and probably guilt over their perceived failure to give her what she needs), are also repeatedly making a bad choice: to give in to her emotional bullying and give her what she wants instead of making her stand on her own.

You can point out to them that they're doing this, although they probably already know, but it's likely that there's not much you can say to them that will make it easier for them to act in a way that will feel to them like abandoning her. Your parents are enabling your sister to be helpless, but they don't want to cut her off emotionally because she's instilled in them a fear that she won't make it on her own.

It's also unlikely that anything you say to her will make her want to give up the security she's getting from your parents. She probably likes the support and attention. She'll continue her tactics for as long as they work, because she's afraid of trying to get along without your parents' support.

I know you're concerned about your parents, but I don't think there are any specific words you can say to them that will make it easier for them to (from their point of view) abandon their child who needs them. You sound like a great child who is understandably concerned about your parents, but you can't make them see what you see. You can, however, remove their relationship with her as a source of stress in your life by not talking about her with them. This may feel to you like you're abandoning them (which is probably akin to the way they feel about the possibility of cutting your sister off), but it's the only way to not let their dysfunctional relationship with your sister drive you crazy.

Counseling for you, for them, or for you and them together might help you all feel less stressed out about this. But your parents have to decide for themselves that they're ready to stop giving in to her, and it doesn't sound like they're ready to do that yet. They may never be. All you can do is try to minimize the effect that this relationship has on your life and be there to support them if/when they decide to make a change.
posted by Amy Phillips at 2:38 PM on August 29, 2006

I agree: convince your parents to get some counseling to learn how to deal with this situation and understand their own cooperation.
posted by LeisureGuy at 3:13 PM on August 29, 2006

I also agree: there's no magic thing you can say or do to make your parents see this very painful situation your way. All you can do is change how you engage (or disengage) the situation in terms of your interactions with your parents and your sister. In taking care of yourself that way, you're changing one part of the overall family dynamic. Your parents will probably find that unsettling, and they'll try to get you to change back to the way they're used to you relating to the situation. Keep doing what's healthy for yourself, though, and perhaps -- perhaps -- it will help prompt them to do the same for themselves. No guarantees, though.

Your sister's behavior rings some bells to me in terms of a few people I've known -- like a cross of traits between narcissistic and borderline personality disorder. (IANAD, IANAP, etc.) Regardless of where your sister may actually fall on the ol' DSM, though, maybe there are some useful books that would have some strategies you could adapt to your circumstances. And I second the notion of getting therapy for yourself -- not because you're the crazy one here, but precisely because you're the sane one who wants to figure out a better way of dealing with a crazy situation. I know this is a really difficult spot to be in, so I wish you all the best.
posted by scody at 6:06 PM on August 29, 2006

I agree that the quickest route to a change in the relationship would come from your parents deciding to change the way they have responded to your sister.

Another option is to talk with your sister. While you no longer have sympathy for your sister if you could approach her with some compassion that might bring about change as well. Tell her that while she is in a stable situation at the moment (!), it can't continue endlessly. Does she fear the future? Does the passing of your parents worry her? What would bring her more satisfaction and comfort? I'm not suggesting that you cater her at all. If she uses the conversation as an entry for that, then stop it cold. But entering into her world and giving audience to her emotions might have some benefits. She seems desperate to have her feelings acknowledged. If you can do this without an agenda, i.e. I'll listen to her if it will get her out of my parent's hair, then you are more likely to see some results.
posted by BigSky at 6:24 PM on August 29, 2006

She perceives none of this as her fault, and blames my parents. Seriously, she’ll fly into a tear-filled rage and blame them for not taking her to more play dates when she was little.

I can't help wondering if there were issues during your sisters’ childhood that were more serious than that.

Your assessment could be spot-on. Still, the “play dates” rankles – I am left wondering if maybe you are minimizing her childhood experiences because of your anger.

Reading your question what struck me was what an excruciatingly painful existence your sister is living.

If you were able to get to a point in your relationship with her where you could empathize with her it might make things easier for you to accept (and deal with) the situation.
posted by mlis at 7:01 PM on August 29, 2006

This sounds very frustrating and sad. If your parents want this to change, perhaps group therapy for the four of you could help. If your parents are unable to make that step, either disengage emotionally... or change your folks' phone number and locks, and take them away on weekends until your sister stops coming by.
posted by Scram at 7:26 PM on August 29, 2006

You are much too involved in this. Detriangulate (fancy word for get a life).. Read anything by Harriet Lerner and get a therpaist. You can't do anything about his. It is their dance.
posted by trii at 7:27 PM on August 29, 2006

Your parents and your sister are in a codependent abusive relationship. It won't end until one side or the other decides its over. It's unlikely you'll be able to convince them. Counselling for your parents may help.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:50 PM on August 29, 2006

Next time she threatens to hurt herself call the cops on her and don't go over or call her back. Four or five sessions of this cured my college roomate of making similar threats to her mother. She then started in on various boyfriends, random men and roommates who cared (ie not me, she enver acted crazy around me after the first time when it became abundantly clear I didn't give a shit). Aas far as I know she is still acting batshit insane but at least her family don't have to deal with it anymore.
posted by fshgrl at 10:32 PM on August 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

Well there is something you can do, imho, tho its not a solution, it might help your folks for a few months and maybe even in the long term. Your sister obviously needs an enormous amount of support and doesn't respect your parents for delivering it. I don't think realistically you're ever going to convince your parents to cut this support off, or withold it from your sis.

What you can do, as a brother/sister(?) is devote three months to your sister, give her the support she's crying for, and take as much of the load as you can. Then use your position to encourage her to see a doctor/get a job/get a boyfriend etc. When she fcks up then let her know that she's behaving unacceptably, and that she can't treat you or anybody else like this. If she has to learn the hard way, give her tough love. But make sure she knows that your love for her is always there.

Even if you don't live in the same town then you could phone her every day or so and come back some weekends to see her. It won't be fun, it'll suck up your time, but if you treat it like a project, one that you're doing out of love for your parents and your sister, then you might be able to push everyone in the right direction. Good the luck.
posted by einekleine at 2:16 AM on August 30, 2006

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