Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My sister is very aggressive and (of course) has all the answers, especially about how I should raise my now-adult children. Every day there is either an angry email or phone call: Have you done THIS? How can you let them do THAT? You must make them … whatever.
I know Sis will not change. Is there anything I can do, other than take fewer calls and not read her emails?
Tired of Aggressive Sister
How about taking no calls and responding to no emails that contain such bullying? Some people in your position go so far as to ask a disinterested party, usually a very good friend, to screen the voice- and emails for you, so you’re only exposed to the ones you need to see.
Carolyn: I was wondering if there is any point in saying, directly, the kids are adults now, so I can’t make them … whatever. Or would that make her start harassing them?
It could. It could also encourage her to explain how you can, in fact, still control your children.
Mostly, though, that’s not what I’d advise saying because it misses the point. Which is: It was never your sister’s business how you raise your kids, even when they were young.
This is the part I hope you’ll embrace and internalize and use as the launch pad for all your responses to her from now on. You’re old enough to have grown children and yet you’re subjecting yourself still to daily harassment from your sister — and wondering whether it’s OK to stand up to her.
Yes, yes, yes. It’s not only OK, it’s overdue.
“We'll live our lives, Sis, and you live yours. So what’s new with you?” Don’t give her any traction on things that aren’t her business. You say you know she won’t change, and that’s probably true, but this is not about that; this is about your making a change.
Make this your new mantra: “I’m through being scolded, harassed, preached to, intimidated.” Then step out of her reach, quietly, firmly, consistently, and appropriately to the form of communication she’s used. Calls, you screen; emails, you ignore; rooms, you vacate. Etc. No rancor necessary, just a peaceful disappearance of her favorite target.
To establish a relationship with her on your terms — if and when you feel strong enough to resist her pressure — you can return her calls and emails when you’re calm and focused, and when you’re confident you can keep the conversation on the topics you’re willing to discuss.
When she tries to redirect you onto the subject of what you are and aren’t supposed to be doing with regard to your children, you say, “Thank you for your concern,” and then change the subject back to something neutral. If she persists or attacks, you say pleasantly but firmly, “I’m not going to discuss my children with you.”
Then, if she won’t drop it, you offer an also-pleasant, “OK, I’m going to go now. Have a great week and I'll talk to you soon.”
It will be tempting to let her take the reins back, because she'll make it difficult for you not to. She doesn’t decide who you are, though; you do. Please find courage in that.
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