Health

What to Do if a Sibling Is Treating Your Parents Badly

You don't always have to intervene, but if you decide to, make sure you have everyone's side of the story.
October 8, 2020, 1:14pm
How to Talk to a Sibling if They're Treating Your Parents Badly
Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Images via Getty

Forming semi-functional adult relationships with your siblings can be as much of a process as figuring out how to relate to your parents, and even if you’ve managed to negotiate peace accords with each member of the family unit yourself, things can still get messy for you if your parents and siblings haven't.

If your parents and your sibling are fighting about something—holiday visits, money, life choices, “jokes” that are actually just mean—and you sense that your sibling is the one who’s out of line, here are some tips for maintaining your sanity and setting healthy boundaries.

Before a conversation with your sibling about your family, check in with yourself.

If the people who raised you are complaining to you about a sibling's upsetting behavior, or you’re witnessing it yourself, you may feel pressure to step in and fix the problem or make peace. When you've got a front-row seat to someone else's conflict and need to decide if it's going to be an audience-participation kind of deal, I'd encourage you to first stop and ask yourself some questions of the situation and the people in it. Such as:

- Are you the best person to approach your sibling about what's going on?

What's your standing in this dispute? How does this problem affect you directly, if it does at all? Do you have the kind of close relationship and trust with your sibling where they might listen to you about it?

As an example: Say your parents have been lending or giving your sibling money for longer than seems sustainable for them, and your sibling isn’t even attempting to look for a job or find a way to pay it back. You think your parents are being taken advantage of, but then again, it’s their money, and they have the power to put agreements in writing, to set clear expectations, and to stop writing checks at any time. That's not up to you. This might be a very good time to step back and let them work it out.

For another example: If your sibling moved back in with your parents and is being a terrible roommate and you also live there, then their behavior is affecting you, too. But if you don’t, well, is it really your place to make the weekly chore chart for a house you don’t live in? You're probably not the right person to have that conversation, either.

Even if they don't live together, your siblings and parents are all adults who presumably have each other's email addresses and phone numbers. If they can't talk through it, why do they think you'll do a better job? If you're getting drawn into the middle of something, it's reasonable to ask, "Have you told [sibling] what you're telling me?" It's also reasonable to insist on direct communication and refuse to pass messages or keep secrets for people who won't talk to each other. "Oh, you should probably just talk to [sibling]." “I’m not comfortable discussing [sibling] with you, especially when they’re not here to speak for themselves.”

- Did anyone ask you for your opinion, advice, or help, and, if so: Do you actually want to give it?

When a person tells you about a problem, that's not the same as asking you to do or say something about it. If you’re not sure, ask something like, “Do you want advice, or do you just want me to listen and make soothing noises?”

"Why are you telling me this?" and "Is there something specific you'd like me to do?" are also useful questions, and, "Oh, that's terrible, what do you think you'll do about it?" is a great redirect when you're pretty sure someone is trying to recruit you to manage their problem.

How to Argue With a Narcissist

If your parents often deputize you in conflicts with your siblings, and make you feel like the family fixer and jerk-whisperer, responsible for everyone's feelings, that role can come with a lot of validation and praise along with the drama, and be a hard habit to break. It may help to be aware of two dysfunctional family communication patterns. The first is parentification, where a parent expects their child to meet their emotional needs, co-parent siblings, and be the parent's confidant and mediator in family conflicts. The parental thinking here is like, Who needs a therapist with set weekly appointment times and professional boundaries when I have you, a person I've trained to never say no to me?

The second is triangulation, where one person communicates with another person by passing messages through a third person. Everybody vents now and then, but someone who is triangulating in a conflict often expects you to adopt their beefs as your own while they stay above the fray. This thought process sounds like, Oh, your sister is an adult, I would never interfere in her life! (I will just tell you all of my criticisms of her, and her all my criticisms of you, and then you two can pass them on and fight it out while I watch!)

Keeping these terms in mind if you feel they apply to you, set boundaries with yourself (e.g., "It is not my job to fix my family," and/or, "These are adults, adults can handle their own relationships and feelings") and with your relatives. It doesn’t obligate you or make you the best person to help just because someone asked you to. This doesn’t mean you should never speak up when you see or hear about a problem, but pausing and thinking through some of these questions before wading in is rarely going to make anything worse. Your boundary/reminder for yourself can be something like, "I may or may not choose to help when asked, but I won't jump into someone else's dispute just because they want me to."

- What’s the worst that might happen if you don’t get involved?

This started as a tool to manage anxiety (thank you, Years of Therapy™), but it also helps with relationships: When I’m feeling pressured or torn about getting involved in someone’s problems, I make a list of the potential choices everyone has in the situation and brainstorm the possible outcomes of those choices, like an emotional Excel chart. One of my choices is always “Do nothing.”

Often, the most useful part of the exercise is reminding myself, Hey, people have choices about how they treat me, how they treat each other, and how they handle their problems. I’m not responsible for everything they ever do or feel.

On the other hand, being a bystander to shitty behavior and staying silent when you could speak up can feel like enabling it. Sometimes, even if it won’t change anyone’s mind or solve anything, saying, “Whoa, uncool!” when someone is obviously being unkind or inconsiderate is the right thing to do for the sake of your own integrity. No matter what you choose, having a sense of what outcome you're working toward will help you as you go, even if the answer is "doing nothing," because self-preservation is a solid goal to work toward.

How to Actually Have a Conversation With Your Sibling About How They're Treating Your Parents

There are situations in which you might want to say something, but maybe you're not sure how to actually talk to your sibling.

Two examples we'll come back to as we go: Imagine that every time your family has plans for a big get-together, your sister says she will be there but then routinely cancels at the very last minute, and your parents are hurt. Or, imagine that one of your parents is in recovery for alcohol addiction, and your brother keeps making weird jokes about it, and you can see that it’s getting under your parent’s skin.

In either case, you might think speaking up is the right thing to do, and that it would make a difference, so you've decided: You’re going in. Here's how.

Brush up on how to argue without going into full attack mode.

I've written about fighting fair with family members  in the past, with advice for treating conflicts as joint problem-solving exercises, being mindful of people's comfort, and knowing the limits of what you can do to change someone else's behavior or their mind. All of that applies here, so go read up—I'll be here when you get back.

Speak only for yourself.

Don’t talk to your sibling FOR or instead of your parents—you're not the family messenger. Speak about your own opinions and observations, and do your own fact-finding, instead of presenting your sibling with a "group" consensus.

People sometimes think that saying, "Everybody in the whole family thinks that you should stop doing X," carries more authority than, "I saw you do X, and it really bothered me to see you being so unkind. What's going on?" The opposite is true. On a gut level, the use of "everybody" is distracting and can make the person you’re talking with instantly defensive, like, Who is "everybody" here, anyway? What, exactly, did they say, and why can't they say it to my face??? You have more authority and standing if you center your own relationship with the person as it relates to the matter at hand. After all, you're probably here because this is about your feelings and relationship with them, so go with that!

In the case of the bad-jokes-about-AA brother, this would look something like, “Greg, you keep making these jokes about booze and addiction, but have you noticed Dad never laughs at them? It makes me so uncomfortable when it happens, and I don’t think he would ever say anything to you, but I feel like it's a really sore subject.”

Don't presume you have the whole story, and stay open to your sibling's point of view.

Speaking for yourself also means checking your assumptions and asking questions, even when you think you already know what's happening. It is a weird, true thing that two people can grow up in the same family, and, in many cases, at roughly the same time, and still have utterly different relationships with the people who raised them. (If you doubt me, ask any oldest child raised under strict supervision about what it's like to see their younger siblings walking all over these exhausted, broken people who now say, "Sure, have fun!" instead of, "Absolutely not.")

If you tend to talk about your sibling with your parents more than you actually talk to your sibling, get their side of the story before you double down on your parents' version. If your sibling sets a boundary with your parents that you don't know about, and then you come in hot all like, "Why are you being so mean to our poor parents?" you are going to feel like a giant jerk if they explain that, no, they aren't going to stop being gay anytime soon, and they asked your parents to either respect that or give them space.

In the case of the always-canceling-sister: “Amanda, it really bugs me when you cancel on family plans at the last minute. Mom and Dad put a lot of work into getting the house ready and grocery shopping for stuff they think you’ll like, and it’s a huge bummer for me when I take days off from work so I can see you and you’re not there—and then they're sad about that the whole time, too. Is there something going on with you that’s making it feel hard to follow through?"

Maybe your sister is just being oblivious, but maybe there are money troubles, or last-minute anxiety troubles, or a deeper, ongoing conflict between her and your parents that you don’t know about. Before you judge her or chew her out, based on what family togetherness is supposed to be like, inhabit the relationship that you actually have. What if there’s something that’s quite fixable going on, and all you need to say is, “Well, when you start feeling anxious and it doesn't feel like there's a way to say no from the start, could you send me a text or call me, and we’ll figure it out together?”

Explicitly address the differences in your individual relationships with your parents if they're a longtime sore spot.

It’s so easy to regress into familiar roles and pecking orders when you interact with your siblings, especially when things get heated. One way to reset things is to step back and ask yourself, Would I ask this of a fellow adult who isn’t related to me? If I were arguing with a good friend, would I bring up stuff they did when they were in diapers?

If you're the golden child and your parents tend to treat you like you've got things together more so than your siblings, don't pretend that's not the case if your sibling points it out. “Look, I know that the family story is that I’m the 'grown-up one,' and our parents are annoying about that. But I don’t see things that way, and this is one time where I actually think you really are being unreasonable. Can you help me understand where you’re coming from?”

Focus on the future.

What, if anything, do you want your sibling to do about the problem you’re discussing? “Can you stop telling those jokes around Dad?” “If you need to cancel, can you give everyone as much notice as you can?” If you can agree on some action that will make it right, there’s less of a chance things will fester.

Your memories of being kids together will always be a part of your relationship, but that doesn’t have to define the way you interact as adults. Communicating directly, staying out of conflicts and matters that aren’t your business, and asking questions before you assume are all ways to show that you respect somebody, inside your family or out of it, and possibly make things just a little bit easier for everybody, including yourself.

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