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Did I Push Them Too Much?

Question:

My sister is 27 years old and still lives at home with my parents with her 2 year old daughter. Growing up at home was difficult. My mom drank for much of my childhood and she quit around the time I was 12 years old. My dad is very controlling, verbally abusive and occasionally physically abusive towards my sister. Since the birth of my niece he has choked my sister twice. He once tried to commit suicide (through a massive dose of antidepressants) when my mom wanted to go out to a dinner that was for her office only (no spouses). Sometimes when my mom and I make plans to go shopping, he comes along too and seems very jealous of my mom’s time. My concern now is how my niece is being treated. My father will scream at her and then deny that he does it. My sister will scream at her and also deny that she does it. My sister has had multiple issues and the latest diagnosis is borderline personality (and I agree). My sister and my father have gotten into a fight where she threw a soft shoe (croc-type shoes) at my father and it hit my niece. I was furious but my mom promised to take care of it. That last incident with the shoe was about 6 months ago and things have calmed down (like usual – they classically cycle through the abuse cycle). I was on the phone with my sister the other day and I heard him scream at my niece. My sister then screamed at my father and my dad threw something at her. To top it all off, I found out that my sister is seeing the father of my niece again (the same guy who hit her with a telephone in the face and left a bruise). My mom doesn’t know what to do and I lost my cool and told her that our childhood was pretty lousy and that it is her responsibility to call Children and Youth Services and have them step in. My mom is afraid that my sister, living on her own, would be worse to my niece. My mom feels that if she is there, she can at least protect this little girl. I feel that doing the same thing over and over isn’t making a difference – and in fact, things are worse for my niece than they were for us, I think. The problem is, I feel horrible about talking to my mom they way I did. I am normally the calm one, but I was very agitated when I talked to her about it. I felt it was important to tell her that our childhood was difficult and that I wanted better for my niece – but by saying that, she was very hurt. I feel bad, but if she is in denial, what else could I do? I didn’t rant and rave or be insulting and I told her I knew she did the best she could and that I loved her – but she still hung up and when I talked to her the next day, she pretty much cried on and off for the few minutes we were on the phone and said how hurt she was. What else can I do? What could I have done?

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Answer:

You are describing a very difficult family situation for which there are no easy solutions. Based on what you have described of all the family members, the family system as a whole functions on a "borderline level." In other words, there are high levels of tension, anger, acting out, emotional and physical violence and chaos. It seems as though you are looking around for the single person who is the cause. In reality, the entire family is engaged in this terrible and highly emotional way of existing. You are correct about your niece, she is in the middle.

First, with regard to your niece, if you in any way believe that she is being emotionally or physically abused you are required by law to report the situation by calling Children and Youth Services. They will investigate, make recommendations and, if necessary, remove your niece from all of them, not just from your sister. I am sure the court will demand they go to family therapy and change the situation before they restore your niece to the home. It does seem to me as though this is a very abusive and unhealthy situation for your niece. Not just because of her mother but because of the entire family situation, including your sister.

Second, I am not sure why you are trying to convince your mother that your childhood was terrible. Given the high levels of emotions expressed in that household, you cannot really get a satisfactory response from your Mom, except one that is emotional. That is why I am going to suggest the next thing:

Based on my experience with this type of situation, you need to protect and save yourself. In other words, I am suggesting that you put as much distance between yourself and the family. You can even tell them, over the phone, that you will do this until such time as they learn to and can prove that they have calmed down. I would even say that you ask them to go to family therapy. Now, do not expect much. However, for the benefit of your life and your right to have a fulfilling and happy life, it is essential that you get far away from them, including changing your phone number, not calling them and not seeing them.

I know that this must sound very harsh. However, if there is any hope for change, someone has to take the first step. That is why I am suggesting that you tell them what you are doing and why. Then, suggest family therapy and make the moves you need to make to protect yourself because I do not believe much will change, at least, not at first.

Part of the strategy can include reporting them to Children and Youth Services. Until the system they have always live in is challenged, there is not much hope for change.

It is not that you pushed them too much. Rather, they cannot hear you through the high levels of emotions that drown out any logic. The noisy emotion is a result of how All of them interact and not one person. As long as you remain connected to the family while they remain this way, you will be vulnerable to their attacks.

In the end, you need to pull yourself up and out before they drag you down. If they change, fine but, until then, save your self. Who knows, maybe you can even get temporary custody of your niece when you report the situation and you can, maybe save her, yourself and, maybe, maybe, the whole family (though I doubt that you can save the whole family).

Last, when you report the abuse the family will be angry at you but you can speak to the agency about that.

Best of Luck with a very difficult situation

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