My Sister Is Sabotaging My Relationship with My Daughter

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

Please help me. I have one sibling, my sister, who has been my closest friend for most of my life. She is two years older than me and newly divorced, with no children. I am married and have one child, my daughter, who means all the world to me and more. We also have always had a very close relationship, but my daughter is 12 and just barely at the age when she ceases to believe her mother walks on water … if you get my drift. She doesn’t hate me, but she does look for any reason to say I’m being “unfair” with rules or to push my buttons. Unfortunately, her aunt (my sister) only seems to egg her on.

At some point, when my daughter was maybe 6 or 7, it started feeling like my sister and daughter were ganging up on me. They’d giggle together when I dropped something in the kitchen or tease me when I misspoke by accident—little stuff like that. But the teasing started to get more vicious, and my daughter started initiating it after a while. My husband and I were completely shocked, because this behavior was completely at odds with everything we have tried to teach her over her entire life! I started noticing it got worse when she came back from staying with my sister, which happens at least once every couple weeks. Sometimes we were able to sit her down and ask her about it, and she would realize why her comments were rude and disrespectful. But it’s gotten more and more difficult to have those conversations with her.

Meanwhile, my sister has gotten worse about staying in touch and being there for my parents. She’s still one of my best friends, but I am very suspicious of her behavior with my daughter and her lack of communication. All she seems to contact me for these days is asking to see my daughter, and my daughter is just as enthusiastic about spending time with her. I’ve been sympathetic and accommodating, especially since my sister’s divorce. I know she is lonely and has always wanted a child of her own. Plus, I know it can be important for kids to develop relationships with adults in the family—even if it means there’s a “fun aunt” and I am resigned to being the maternal rule enforcer.

But this situation is way more than that. My daughter seems far more invested in her friendship with my sister than being a respectful child. Sometimes she even talks about living with her aunt full-time and says the only thing keeping her at home is her dad. It’s breaking my heart to see her so poorly influenced by my sister, but I know the worst thing would be to separate them completely, because then they’d both hate me. I have no idea what to do! Can you help me understand why my sister might be taking her jealousy (or whatever this is) out on me so cruelly? I hate the feeling they’re teaming up against me, and worried about the future of my family and my daughter’s wrath. What can I do to salvage the solid foundation I thought I’d built in my family and deal with whatever is going on with my sister? —Alienated Parent

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Dear Alienated Parent,

This must be so painful on many levels. Feeling like you are losing both your sister and your daughter just hurts. Some of what is happening is developmentally expected, but the specific concerns with your sister seem to be complicating matters.

First, I’d like to address what often happens with a 12-year-old child. Part of the pre-adolescent/adolescent developmental task is about exploring identity. For most, this means a separation-individuation process that often defines the self in opposition to the parent(s). Many times, this is more intense with the parent of the same gender. As your daughter figures out what kind of woman she wants to become, it may begin with defining herself in opposition to the woman you are. Knowing this is natural doesn’t make it less hurtful, but hopefully makes it feel a little less personal.

During this time, having a caring adult—like an aunt—can be a hugely important way for a child to continue to receive love and guidance from a responsible adult (hopefully one with good boundaries who is in communication with you). That can help a pre-teen/teen navigate the confusing period of adolescence in healthy ways. One tremendously frustrating experience most parents share is having their child ignore the advice and wisdom offered by parents (who clearly don’t know ANYTHING) only to listen with rapt attention to the very same words of wisdom when presented from another source. That’s where aunts, uncles, coaches, or mentors can be invaluable. What is not helpful is having an adult who feeds into the rejection of the parent, triangulates, or attempts to be a “best friend” rather than a caring, responsible adult.

If your sister were simply being a safe sounding board for your daughter to express frustration, she could be a great support. If, however, she hears your daughter’s complaints about you and encourages or adds to the negative talk, it can be damaging all around. It’s one thing to hear your daughter’s complaints and reply with “That must be so frustrating!” It is another to reply with “Oh, I know, you should have seen her when …”

If your sister were simply being a safe sounding board for your daughter to express frustration, she could be a great support. If, however, she hears your daughter’s complaints about you and encourages or adds to the negative talk, it can be damaging all around. It’s one thing to hear your daughter’s complaints and reply with “That must be so frustrating!” It is another to reply with “Oh, I know, you should have seen her when …” The first is an empathetic response that creates a place of safety for your child. The second, while it might feel good for a moment for your daughter (and sister), may actually make her feel less safe talking with your sister in the long run. Many adults fall into this trap of thinking the best way to connect to adolescents is as a friend, which simply isn’t so. Kids need boundaries to push against. They need adults to be adults. They rarely recognize it consciously, but they often feel safest with adults who hold those boundaries (like maternal rule enforcers).

You are right that simply forbidding your daughter and sister from having a relationship could be damaging to all your relationships; however, you are well within your rights as a mom to set out some clear guidelines for your sister. You might begin by letting her know how glad you are that she loves your daughter and wants to be a support to her. You then may want to explore with her what you each hope that relationship would look like. This is the time to be open and honest about your fears and concerns for your daughter and set some boundaries. It is okay to listen to her frustrations with you. It is not okay to add to them. You can limit or curtail the time they spend together if she is unwilling to respect those boundaries, much like you would with anyone whose interactions with your child could be harmful.

You ask why your sister is “taking her jealousy out … on (you) so cruelly.” I’m not sure that’s what is happening. It may not have anything to do with you and everything to do with her. Trying to get on the same page about what is best for your daughter—without making your hurt feelings the focus of this conversation—is likely to be more productive. It sounds, however, like having a future conversation about the relationship the two of you have and hope to have would be fruitful; I recommend keeping it separate from the conversation about your daughter.

If your sister is willing, you might consider meeting with a counselor to talk about the various issues you mention in your relationship, including your feelings about how she is showing up for you and for your parents. It may also be helpful to work with someone on how each of you can support your daughter, and each other, in the coming years.

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.
  • 3 comments
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  • Dixie

    Dixie

    March 24th, 2017 at 2:21 PM

    Why is it that the people whom we love and care for the most are the ones who in the end try to hurt us the most? You give and give so much but then nothing is ever good enough or they use something from the past to work against you instead of to continue to grow the relationship. I wouldn’t stand by and let the one relationship harm what you have with your daughter. I wouldn’t want that one to become something that is not salvageable.

  • Carla

    Carla

    March 27th, 2017 at 8:53 AM

    I hate it when there is divisiveness among family members. It puts a real strain on the entire dynamic of any family relationship that you are attempting to maintain. I think that she is at fault for trying to knowingly turn your daughter against you, but I also think that there will come a point where your daughter will have to be made to be held accountable as well. I am never sure what someone thinks that they will get out of putting up a wall between family members other than the satisfaction of knowing that they were able to do it.

  • Teddy

    Teddy

    March 28th, 2017 at 3:22 PM

    I don’t know anything about this relationship other than what you have stated here but it does make me wonder if there are some other things between the two of you that you don’t feel like you can share here?
    That’s fine but if there is then maybe this could answer some of these questions not only about why she is doing this but if you are making too much out of it?
    Again I am not judging at all, but it can be hard to get the full picture when you only hear one side of the story.
    But I do hope that you can salvage the relationship with your child before it goes too far, this is something that become irreparable so quickly if it is allowed to fester and brew.

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