Question

My husband and I have a rocky relationship with one of my sisters. Despite being in her twenties, she exhibits extremely volatile behavior, including lashing out physically and verbally when she doesn’t get her way and storming off when she is asked by my parents (who support her financially in every aspect) to do any chores. Her behavior has been like this since she was a teenager. Her mood swings have lead me to wonder if she has a mental illness, but she has so far refused to see anyone specializing in mental health.

As her sister, I’ve had to stand back and watch this for years, but this past Christmas, my husband and I saw her behavior take an even more disturbing level. While on an outing with my side of the family, my mentally disabled brother became suddenly ill and threw up in public. While the rest of the family sought to help him, this sister in her twenties became uncontrollably livid, berating him repeatedly for becoming sick and screaming at him to stay away from her when we got in the car to go home. I received news that this sister tried to physically attack this younger brother “for getting her sick,” and my youngest sibling–a high school student–had to restrain her to prevent him from being harmed.

I’m at a loss of what to do. I have tried to speak to my parents about my concerns for her mental illness, but my mother dismisses her behavior as her being that of “an ornery teenager” (once again, she is in her twenties) who is physically ill, and she scolds me for “holding a grudge” against my sister. Obviously, I don’t have any leverage in demanding that she get help, but if this is how she treats our mentally handicapped brother, I worry what will happen if she is ever alone with my children. But how do I make it clear to her and my parents that her behavior is a real concern? Do I wait until she lashes out at one of my children? Do I wait until someone ends up in the hospital from her abuse? While I don’t want to cut out my side of the family–and I can’t avoid her because she usually stays with my parents–her increasingly hostile behavior makes me reluctant to continue to bring my family near her. I fear for my siblings still at home, and I fear for my husband and children when we are with her, but I feel utterly powerless to do anything about it.

Answer

Your sister may indeed have a mental illness or some other emotional disorder. As important as it is to work on getting her professional help, there are more immediate safety concerns that cannot be ignored. Your parents aren’t protecting your mentally disabled brother from her violent verbal and physical threats.

Your sister may be immature, mentally ill, or something else. But one thing you do know is that she has violent tendencies towards others, especially those who are unable to protect themselves. You have done the right thing by addressing it with your parents. Unfortunately, they aren’t willing to face the reality that their own daughter is creating an increasingly unsafe environment in their own home.

No one wants to call the authorities on their own family, but if this escalates to the point where your sister actually physically assaults your brother, then that will be the only option to ensure the safety of everyone in the home. Right now, your parents are passing this off as drama from an immature child. However, it could very well escalate into a situation where your brother and younger siblings are actually physically harmed.

Your sister may be immature and emotionally unstable, but if she crosses the line and actually physically attacks others, she has to be held accountable. Abuse is something that cannot be tolerated in any form. The Church has made strong statements about the seriousness of abuse, such as:

“Abuse is the treatment of others or self in a way that causes injury or offense. It harms the mind and the spirit and often injures the body as well. It can cause confusion, doubt, mistrust, and fear. It is a violation of the laws of society and is in total opposition to the teachings of the Savior. The Lord condemns abusive behavior in any form—physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional. Abusive behavior may lead to Church discipline.”[i]

Your parents and your sister have put you in a terrible position to have to address this issue. Your sister needs help, your siblings need protection, and your parents need to step into their role as protectors of their family. Nothing is going to improve without some intervention. There are a few ways you can do this.

You can sit down with your parents and let them know that if something like this escalates to violence, then you will be forced to call the authorities to protect your siblings. The message is simple: if they won’t protect the vulnerable people in the home, somebody else will. Obviously, this would be very disruptive to your family and they would need to understand how this would drastically change things in the family. You can also involve their bishop so he can understand your concerns about safety in the family. His counsel and influence may provide a reality check for your parents.

In situations like this where someone is clearly crossing social norms for acceptable behavior, you have to speak clearly and strongly about what you will and won’t accept. Your children can’t be put in a situation where she could verbally or physically harm them. Even though she might now take it well, you can also tell her directly that you are concerned about her outbursts and that you will be limiting or preventing contact with your children until she can guarantee that she will be appropriate around them.

Don’t be afraid to address this directly. She’s certainly not afraid of making inappropriate public displays. It’s no secret this is happening, so don’t dance around it. Your parents can be invited to your home. You can ask that she leave the home if you and your children visit. Speak clearly and you’ll come up with good options.

It’s a tragic and messy situation, but there is an opportunity for things to change if you are willing to speak truth and speak up for those who can’t protect themselves, including your siblings and your children. Hopefully your parents and your adult sister will hear you and respond to create safe conditions.

 

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.lovingmarriage.com
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT

 

[i] https://www.lds.org/topics/abuse?lang=eng