Help! My Sister Lies, Steals, and Takes Advantage of Our Mom

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

My sister has taken advantage of our mother for years. Beginning in her teenage years, she has lied, stolen money, used drugs, left home several times, used physical violence against family members, and run up charges on numerous television and phone accounts. She also drove our mother’s car frequently, with or without permission, and had several traffic accidents, totaling two separate cars, before she could no longer be insured as a driver.

Each time our mother has insisted she move out, she eventually comes back with some new sob story—her friends stole her money, her boyfriend cheated on her, she lost her job, she’s sick—and she is allowed to move back in. Our mother feels sorry for her because she has a lot of health problems, and she also doesn’t want to abandon her child, but my sister is 26! No matter what is given to her or done for her, she continues to lie, steal, and manipulate. Our mother has to sleep with her wallet under her pillow and shift her money between accounts regularly so my sister cannot access it, and she is still in debt from years of taking care of my sister’s many bills.

My sister is also a constant source of stress to her. She can barely leave home for a weekend without worrying that something will go wrong. For example, last time she tried to take a weekend trip, my sister disappeared for two days after promising to take care of her dogs, so she had to spend hours on the phone trying to find someone to come by and look after them.

How can I convince my mother to stop enabling my sister’s bad behavior? —Sister Act

Dear Sister,

Thank you for your question. Let’s get right to it.

Unfortunately, you may not be able to convince your mother to stop enabling your sister. It sounds as if your mother is well aware of the issues and challenges your sister presents, and is still willing to support her, even at great inconvenience to herself.

The questions to consider with her, however, may include: What about this is working for your mom? What needs of hers are getting met by supporting your sister? My hunch is she has some strong beliefs about what being a good mother means—and that may include supporting her kids through good times and bad. She also may be afraid of what might happen to your sister if she did not support her. Whatever her beliefs, they are contributing to her willingness to continue on in this way. Having an opportunity to understand why she is doing this could be helpful for you.

There is a school of thought that suggests enabling dysfunctional behavior does more damage than engaging in firm boundary setting or “tough love.” However, there are many exceptions based on specific situations, so there is no clear-cut “right” answer.

The next set of questions is harder, but centers on how well this pattern is serving your sister. There is a school of thought that suggests enabling dysfunctional behavior does more damage than engaging in firm boundary setting or “tough love.” However, there are many exceptions based on specific situations, so there is no clear-cut “right” answer. It might be helpful if you and your mother worked with a therapist who has experience with family circumstances similar to the ones you describe. It could give you and your mom a chance to voice your fears and concerns while working with a trained professional on addressing those concerns in ways that feel right for you and for your mom.

It also sounds as if you might benefit from an opportunity to let go of some of the feelings you’ve been carrying about your sister, which therapy can also help with. I hear the concern you have for your mom; I also hear the frustration you have with your sister for her behavior. It is also not unusual for siblings to feel resentment when another sibling “gets away” with certain behaviors. It can feel unfair, at the very least. Harboring negative feelings such as resentment, however, can be toxic and keep us in a state of anger and frustration that ultimately don’t serve us.

For your sake, even if your mother isn’t willing to engage in therapy with you, I suggest exploring it for yourself. You might find ways to engage with your sister and your mother that bring you peace.

Best of luck,
Erika

Erika Myers
Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC is a licensed psychotherapist and former educator specializing in working with families in transition (often due to separation or divorce) as well as individuals seeking support with relationship issues, parenting, depression, anxiety, grief/loss/bereavement, and managing major life changes. Although her theoretical orientation is eclectic, she most frequently uses a person-centered, strengths-based approach and cognitive behavioral therapy in her practice.
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  • Leslie

    Leslie

    June 3rd, 2016 at 10:22 AM

    I don’t think that anything that you ever say or do will change your mother’s mind. This is her child and this is how she chooses to see her. Right or wrong this is a child that she feels like needs and deserves protection and I think that it is time for you to let it go. You can love your mother but I am afraid that it could eventually put a wedge in your own relationship with her if you continue to go on and on about how the other sibling is treating her. These are both grown women and they have to figure out their own dynamic with one another and hopefully they can leave you mostly out of it.

  • Chad

    Chad

    June 4th, 2016 at 8:14 AM

    I live with the same kind of thing. My brother and his wife are always taking advantage of my parents and it literally drives me mad, but I have learned that the best thing for me is to stay away from it. If I don’t go around all of them then I don’t have to hear about it and it is better for me from a wellness point of view to just be content with being left out of the loop.
    It actually has made me happier that way.

  • Karen P.

    Karen P.

    June 4th, 2016 at 10:47 AM

    My mother was like this with my brother right up till her death at 74, and he didn’t even bother to come to her funeral.
    Two main points
    * even though you may never know what it is, there will be some trauma or traumas that are at the root of your sisters behaviour
    *allowing yourself to slide into personally destructive behaviours because of the trauma of living within the influence of your sister is of no real benifit. Take the time to find some way of removing yourself from this caustic environment. This could mean developing new ways of thinking and reacting to this situation, or fining and working towards personal goals that change the focus of your life or even moving away.
    Good luck.

  • Christina

    Christina

    June 6th, 2016 at 9:37 AM

    and she could be saying the same things about you, that you are the one taking advantage
    tread lightly

  • teddy

    teddy

    June 6th, 2016 at 3:21 PM

    I know that you would probably hate to do this but has anyone ever called the cops on her? Lying about accounts? Using drugs? Stealing money? If I’m not mistaken all of these things are crimes.
    I know that this would probably cause a huge rift in the family, but it sounds like there is already one there.

  • Rich

    Rich

    June 9th, 2016 at 1:58 PM

    You need to concentrate on your own relationship with her and let her work out the rest with the brothers and sisters. You can only do what feels right for you and involves you. They have to work out their stuff together.

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