Ask The Experts: Family Troubles and How to Handle Difficulties!

This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on August 15, 2021, by Marylena Chaisson, LCPC, Case Management Supervisor, Health Affiliates Maine. 

Question: My sister is six years older than me. Growing up, she was responsible for a lot of my care and was abusive both verbally and physically. We barely speak now which is fine by me. She has been living in another state but recently told us she is moving back to Maine. My parents live in Maine also. If it were not for them, I would have no relationship with my sister. However, I know that now I will see her at every holiday. I am dreading it. The only time I spoke to my mother about this (as an adult) she brushed me off as being dramatic. I am feeling a lot of anxiety around seeing my sister more (even though I know she can no longer hurt me). I’m struggling with the need to talk with my parents to let them know I may not be able to visit at the same time as my sister. I do not want to be hurt but nor do I want to be hurt. I know seeing my sister regularly will bring up many bad feelings. Am I best to avoid my sister, talk to my parents, or just try and suck it up?

Answer: I first want to express that your feelings about this are valid, and you are doing a fabulous job thinking about these potential changes ahead of time.  It is natural for you to want to protect yourself from a person who hurt you in the past. Your mother brushing off these concerns when you attempted to speak to her in the past about it does not invalidate your experiences or need to protect yourself in the slightest. I most certainly do not endorse the idea of you choosing to “suck it up” because that feels inauthentic and invalidating of the hurt you have experienced.

There is an array of paths you can take in this situation.  This is not an all-or-nothing, nor is it a one-time permanent decision for which path to take.  It is okay to decide that, for your own sense of emotional safety, you are not ready to have in-person contact (or any contact) with your sister.  You can choose to explain or not explain this to your parents in whatever level of detail you feel comfortable.  You do not owe anyone, including your parents or your sister, an explanation of what you are doing to make yourself feel safe and comfortable in the world.  You also reserve the right to change your mind in the future whenever you feel fit. This is a time where it is important to put your own emotional safety and needs ahead of your desire to please your parents or attempts to help them avoid feeling any discomfort.  They might experience uncomfortable feelings about what you say (or don’t say), but managing their feelings is their responsibility, not yours.  You must look out for your own best interest.

Here are some examples of explanations, varying from matter-of-fact statements with no detail, ideas for redirection, or all the way to including a more thorough, detailed explanation:

“I’m going to miss this family event.”  

“I want to start a new tradition of taking you [parents] out to dinner for holidays – just you and me.”

“I am not interested in seeing [sister] so I will not be attending events where she is present.”

“Remember I told you about the times that [sister] hurt me in the past.  I do not feel able to be in the same room as her right now.  That might be upsetting for you to hear and upsetting you is not my intent, but I need to do what I feel comfortable with. I am seeing a counselor with the hope that I might be able to attend events with her in the future, but I can’t right now.”

That last example leads me to my next thought: this is a perfect situation to bring to a counseling relationship if you have any interest in working through some of the stress you are experiencing related to this.  You have competing desires here—you want to participate in family events and see your parents during the holidays and you also want to avoid seeing your sister. These desires are coming into direct conflict, so something is going to have to give.  The only part of this dynamic you have control over is your own responses and decision-making.  There is room here, should you choose, to develop skills for distress tolerance and self-management while being physically present with her.  A counselor, especially one trained in family dynamics like a LMFT (Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist), could be helpful in supporting you to build skills for managing your reaction, memories, and stress related to the past abuse you experienced. With skills and support, you very well could find yourself able to attend family gatherings with her present without experiencing an unbearable level of distress.  This path is only recommended if you feel that she will not engage in further abusive behavior now that you are both adults—I would never encourage you to expose yourself to further abuse.  

Please remember, your path forward here should be focused on what feels emotionally safest to you, and not based on a misplaced sense of owing your parents contact with your sister. You can choose to work towards increasing your ability to be around her in the future—or not—again, that is totally up to you and may evolve over time.  Stay authentic to your truth and honor yourself and you will see the best path forward in this complicated situation.

Marylena Chaisson, LCPC is a clinical social worker and the Case Management Supervisor at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children, and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website and click on “Referrals.” 


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