Question #150: My sister calls me names and pulls my hair. We’re in our 20s. How do I get her to stop?

Dear Captain Awkward,

I am having trouble with my older sister, Z. She calls me stupid nicknames, pokes me, pinches me, plays with and pulls my hair, and does a lot of other obnoxious stuff just to annoy me and my mother. This was acceptable, or at least understandable, when we were younger – but she’s 23 and I’m 20 now, and this has been going on since we were kids. I understand having some silliness among family and friends, but at the same time I want to be treated like an adult. Z still acting this obnoxious makes me feel like she’s still treating me like a small child or like her plaything.

I’ve tried asking and telling Z calmly to stop. I’ve tried yelling at her when I’ve gotten angry about it. When we were younger, I’d physically hurt her and we’d get into fights about stupid stuff like this, but now that I’m older, I realize that’s a horrible approach.  She asks me for a lot of favors and I help her out a lot, so I’ve tried asking her to repay my help by stopping, but that doesn’t work either.

When I ask Mom for help, she just says she’s annoyed with Z too and tells me to ignore her. I’ve tried that, but Z either starts doing more things to annoy me until I get angry or she takes my silence as acceptance of her treatment and continues doing it. Mom’s also tried telling Z to stop and yelling at her, since Z also does this to her, but Z hasn’t stopped with her either.

Z does this a little bit with my stepbrother, but not nearly to the extent she does with me and Mom, and not as much as she did when we were younger. She doesn’t do this to anyone else. When I try to get her to stop, she just rolls her eyes and acts like I’m being silly or getting butthurt over nothing.

Z can act better – she can have good conversations with me, give me advice, help me with my problems and situations, defend me when my mother starts getting on my case, and in general be a pretty awesome sister, but then she starts pestering me or Mom again and all of that flies out the window. I’m tired of being treated like I’m still a little kid half the time and like an adult half the time, and not knowing which treatment I’m going to get.

Is there any way for me to get Z to stop? I know this may seem minor, but it’s been going on for years now and I’m tired of dealing with her crap. We’re adults. I want us to treat each other like we are, and I don’t want to still be called stupid nicknames by my sister when we’re in our forties or something..

Thanks for any advice you can give and thanks being awesome.

Tired of Dumb Nicknames and Hairpulling

Other advice columnists might try to diagnose “why” Z does what she does. For instance, my younger brother had a lot of developmental issues and early childhood trauma that probably explains why he would sit right on the border of my bedroom carpet (he couldn’t come in, but I couldn’t shut the door) and yell for me to play with him…for hours….until I punched him in the face as hard as I could with mean fists and he counted that as a victory because a) ATTENSHUN! and b) I would get in trouble. Did he not understand that I was playing BY MYSELF?  And that I had very important things to do like turning my Barbie camper into the Millennium Falcon so that we could help the Ingalls family find a new home?

Oh god, just thinking about it, if I had a time machine I would go back and punch him again, only harder. (FYI, I am 37. He is 36.) My mom would also tell me, oh so helpfully, “Just ignore him.” Then he would sit out there and chant “YOU’RE G’NORING ME! OOOOH!”

I think for a while he thought his name was “GOAWAYANDLEAVEMEALONE.”

FYI, adults:  “Just ignore it” never works, and when kids get a little older they learn to translate it correctly as “I don’t know what to do, either, but I sure wish you would stop bothering me about it. Have you considered learning to just take it?”

I think that why Z. is doing this is completely unimportant and that you will help yourself by removing that entirely from consideration. This isn’t an afterschool special where you find out that Santana is just mean because she is a secret lesbian. She might have reasons. Those reasons might be she’s an asshole with no sense of maturity or boundaries. Most people who are abusive to other people have major issues themselves, but that’s not an excuse to keep doing it, or a reason that you should just take it. What matters is that she stop doing that stuff to you, period.

I think Z. gets one more talk. If you can get your mom to back you up, great, but if not, go it alone. Use “When you _____, I feel _____” statements.

When you pull my hair and call me names, it makes me feel violated and angry.”

“When you keep going after I ask you to stop, you make me feel powerless and angry.”

When you make fun of me for sticking up for myself, it makes me feel angry and like you don’t care about me at all.”

If you’re feeling generous, you might ask her, “When you do that stuff, what is it that you want from me?  What are you hoping to accomplish?” 

She might apologize or have a heart to heart or laugh it off or explain why she is the way she is. Whatever. Maybe she does care about you, in her way. Don’t get sucked in too much about talking about the past or her issues.  What matters is that she knocks it off. Now.

The final result of the conversation is “You don’t touch me anymore without my permission, and you don’t call me names anymore.  My name is ___.

Then this is where it gets tricky, because you are going to have to enforce your boundaries, and it may call on you to act in ways that make you feel like you are being a jerk, and your mom may not have your back because you are the one disrupting the status quo.

Because the next time Z’s hand snakes out toward you, you’re going to grab her wrist and say Whoa, were you going to touch me?  You know I don’t like that.”  Hold onto it, hold eye contact with her, drop the hand, and walk away. Leave the room.  You don’t talk to Z. (or help her) for the rest of the day. If she walks into a room, you walk out of it. If she tries to talk to you, you say “I am angry at you. Let’s talk tomorrow.”  Don’t give her attention (which is one of the things she wants from you). Make plans to do something out of the house with friends. Close your door. Wear headphones. Go the fuck to the library.

The next day, restart the clock. Be perfectly normal/pleasant to Z. But if she tries to touch you again, shut it down. Don’t be afraid to be loud. Don’t apologize. Grab her hand, stop the touching, say “No!” or whatever loudly. She’s on time out for the rest of the day.

If your mom asks what’s going on, say “I’ve asked Z. not to touch me anymore without permission. She’s having a hard time getting the message.” If she tries to pressure you to make peace, say “I love Z. and I’m happy to make peace, as soon as she gets the message that she can’t touch me anymore without permission.”  If your mom gets mad at you or blames you, throw it right back: “Well, I’ve handled it your way for 20 years now. We’re trying mine this month.”

Same thing with the name calling. One “I’ve asked you not to call me that.” Then you’re done for that day. The clock resets the next day.

When your sister is nice to you (on a day when you’re not shutting her down), respond in kind. Give her positive attention for positive behavior, and let her save face.  But the first sign of touching/name-calling, cut her off.

It’s going to get wicked uncomfortable.

You will be the one “ruining” the mood of the family holidays or whatever…the mood that let your sister walk all over everyone her entire life, and you might get pressure from her and everyone to just go back to the way it used to be.

It’s hard to maintain coldness when you’re not naturally cold or used to standing up for yourself, but you can do it.

Stay strong. Do lots of stuff out of the house when the pressure gets too much. Find a mantra like “I don’t like this either, but she needs to learn to stop touching me and talking to me that way, and I am going to do whatever it takes.”

It may not work. I offer no guarantees.  But it gives you at least a fighting chance of resetting the relationship and standing up for yourself in it.  She is the one who needs to change.  You can’t control that, but you can set limits on how she treats you. Good luck.

31 comments
  1. monica said:

    FYI, adults: ”Just ignore it” never works, and when kids get a little older they learn to translate it correctly as “I don’t know what to do, either, but I sure wish you would stop bothering me about it. Have you considered learning to just take it?”

    omgomgomgomgomg yes this. THANK YOU, CAPTAIN AWKWARD. love, my inner 8 year old.

    • Copcher said:

      Yes, so true. Actually, most conventional advice on how to deal with most kinds of unpleasant behaviour doesn’t work, and I think it’s often because the advice starts with the assumption that you need to maintain the status quo. Getting out of unpleasant situations often feels like its own unpleasant situation, especially when the people around you don’t have your back. As usual, the Captain’s advice is pretty stellar.

      • Chris said:

        I’d even say that sometimes the advice is directly aimed at maintaining the status quo. The feelings of the kid (or adult) who’s being pestered aren’t valued; but for whatever reason, it’s been decided by the group that the pesterer’s feelings are valuable, or the pesterer would have been shut down long since*. There’s a status quo in which the valuable feelings are being protected, the less valuable feelings don’t matter anyway, and everything would be just fine if only the pesteree would shut up complaining. That’s the status quo that ‘just ignore it’ protects.

        *Don’t think I didn’t notice, Year 6 teacher, that the one time I tried to give one of the kids who’d been bothering me all year (with zero interference from authority) a dose of his own medicine, you shut me down hard.

    • I really wish I could tell this to every adult who told me to “just ignore it” when I was being harassed in school. A lot of people respond to being ignored by escalating their behavior until it’s un-ignorable, which for me just meant I started crying or completely shut down for a few hours at school every day. Not how I wanted to spend my middle school days, thanks.

      Thanks for stating this so clearly, Captain. I never thought about it but that’s exactly what those adults were saying to me. I need to re-commit myself to NEVER saying those words to anyone.

    • Jake said:

      Well, I think the thing is that in healthy, adult interactions, it frequently does work. It doesn’t work with kids, or with people who are acting like kids (like the LW’s sister), but I’ve had a few cases as an adult where someone was teasing/bothering me in a way that crossed a line, or just being super obnoxious in conversation, or something, and just ignoring them (putting on my headphones, continuing the conversation around them, etc.) did make them stop, and sometimes even caused them to apologize. But only if they’re reasonable people to begin with.

      Adults do need to remember that kids don’t behave like this and we can’t just expect them to.

  2. secretrebel said:

    Great advice – but one caveat. Don’t try to grab her hand, that could easily become a wrestling match. Just step back. Then walk away.

    Good luck!

    • Esti said:

      I was going to say the same thing. I had some (male) friends in high school who liked to poke my side, tickle me, etc. and physically trying to get them to stop was always taken as encouragement. It’s the equivalent of the Captain punching her brother in the face, except that it hurts less and it can be willfully misinterpreted as you wanting to participate.

    • Jason said:

      If you’re going to grab her hand, you have to do so in a totally non-playful way. If you’re stronger than she is, then you might be able to get away with squeezing her wrist.

      Whatever you do, your reaction must be cold, without the slightest inkling of fun, or warmth, or anything that could be misconstrued in any way as consent, or willingness to go along with the deal.

    • I disagree – if you grab her wrist and dig your thumb (hard, w/ some nail) into the space on the underside of her wrist between the two arm bones, that’s uncomfortable – people will try to get their arm back, not wrestle. And if they want their arm back, that’s fine, they are trying not to touch you anymore.

      • Esti said:

        Maybe that works if you’re the type of person who’s coordinated and quick enough to be good at it, but as I was neither of those things I always found that it lead to the other person playing “let’s see how good Esti is at grabbing my hand before I can touch her!” in addition to their existing game of trying to poke or tickle me.

        And even if you are good at it, that reaction gives the other person the option of escalating the physical situation — you grab them and dig your nail in hard, and they may well hit you or push you. Which is NOT to say that they would be justified in doing so, but often people who refuse to respect physical boundaries in these small ways are looking for a way to initiate a fight and aren’t going to back down in response to a show of force. The LW said that was a road they went down as kids, and physical retaliation didn’t change her sister’s behavior. I think the Captain’s advice of refusing to engage is much more likely to get the sister to stop.

        • Fair enough; I also actually have a terrible time responding quick enough in physical situations, so if that’s not your forte, it’s probably best avoided. But you can grab someone’s hand in a way that precludes a wrestling match.

    • Ensign Perception said:

      Yeah, I actually believe that “Whoa, were you going to touch me? You know I don’t like that.” + hand grab might be my line, which I offered up for general usage a while ago in the comments.

      I find that it works well in a specific situation – namely when a grabby person tries this kind of crap on you for the first or second time.

      Pattern of uh… “horseplay” over a period of years?? Yeah the hand grab may not work out so well. In this case I’d step well away and just say, “Don’t touch me”.

      The rest of the advice is excellent.

      • JenniferP said:

        I did steal that from you! Thanks! I linked the thread where it first showed up.

        I agree that stepping back or otherwise avoiding the touch also works. Mainly, do what it takes to interrupt the action.

  3. Ace said:

    If it wasn’t Christmas, I’d totally pressure my one sister to do this to my other sister. Not the exact same situation, but one could really stand to learn how to respect the other. I’d totally have her back though. Well, as much as I can from 3,500 miles away.

    • JJ said:

      And your sister loves you for it. 🙂 Thanks.

      Also, this post is so completely fantastic. I took copious notes on this and plan to try some of these tactics out with a few non-family parasites in my life.

      • lm said:

        Aw. 🙂

        It really is fantastic. There’s comes a time, particularly when it’s been an ongoing behavior, to use Bad Dog training.

  4. Tired said:

    Wow, you got to this fast. Thank you so much. Having someone confirm that this is not okay is helping me feel better about the situation already.

    I’ve already spoken with my mother a little and she said she’s okay with me doing what I need to do to get this to stop. I’m not sure she realizes how far I’m willing to go, so I’ll fight the “you’re going overboard” battle if/when it comes.

    secretrebel, Esti – I’ll definitely keep that in mind. I’ve had my share of slap-fights and “I’m not touching you!” problems from trying to physically stop Z in the past. I may try it the way CA said to do it once and see what happens.

    • JenniferP said:

      It’s not normal and it’s not okay. And it’s not “kidding around” or “come on, we’re sisters.”

      She’s basically behaving like any other jerk who touches you without your permission and needs to be shut down. You can rebuild a better relationship with her once the boundaries are clear.

  5. JetGirl said:

    My older brother is like this. Only he’s 45, and I’m 40. And no, I haven’t spoken to him or seen him in five years. I just got sick of his crap. My mother has also always enforced the status quo, and never protected me from his at times downright abusive behavior. You see, he never got over mommy and daddy bringing home another baby, and has punished me ever since.
    LWs sister may not be an asshole, but my brother really is. I hope your sister stops doing this, LW. It’s upsetting, and soul-sucking, and disappointing. This may be a turning point for you. You deserve a cool sister who appreciates you.

  6. b said:

    Yup. Time to get out the mental version of your own National Guard. For the longest time, I thought grown-ups could all solve everything with polite conversation. Some times, I think we need to say things with our loudest loud voices and maybe throw in a death stare. Do not be afraid of your own voice.

    • JJ said:

      “Do not be afraid of your own voice.” I love this line. I think you’re absolutely right.

  7. Rosie said:

    Yeah, this advice is correct. BTW, my sister was in her mid-twenties when my parents had to enforce a “no licking” rule.

  8. Weird. My little sister acts similarly. She yells at me constantly, sometimes when I’m trying to sleep. She scratches and bites me sometimes when she feels I’m not paying enough attention to her. She’s rude to my friends. Sometimes she even vomits on my stuff.

    Oh, wait, that’s not my sister. That’s my cat.

    I find that grabbing the scruff of her neck and/or squirting her with water helps.

  9. Hanna said:

    That’s great that you have a plan about this, LW. It’s definitely not something you should ignore or put up with. My older brother and I used to have little physical fights into our teens. One day when we were about 13 and 16, I had threatened to pour water on his computer, so he threw a chair at me. It hit my arm hard, I burst into sobs with fear, and at that moment I think we both realized that things had changed and physical fights had to stop forever… At some point these little sibling annoyances start to look like bullying. I hope your sister gets the message quickly.

    Love the point about “just ignore it”, Captain.

  10. AMM said:

    One thing isn’t clear to me about the LW’s situation: does (s)he live still live with the parents and Big Sister? It’s a lot harder to deal with abuse if you have to live with the abuser.

    Another complication: LW writes:
    Z can act better – she can have good conversations with me, give me advice, help me with my problems and situations, defend me when my mother starts getting on my case, and in general be a pretty awesome sister,

    That is, LW is not just getting abuse from Z, but also good stuff. LW may find that Z is not willing to change, and that the choice ends up being to either take Z as she is, both the good and the bad, or to not have a relationship at all. Is the good stuff good enough to make it worth putting up with the bad?

    As for the advice to “just ignore it,” I think it goes beyond “don’t bother me with it.” It’s a form of enabling. My mother was like that about the way my older brother terrorized me, and I now realize that she was in her own “nice guy” way a bully, too. To stop my brother, she would have had to face things about herself that she didn’t want to face. In the same way, the people who run schools can’t effectively stop bullying because what they themselves do isn’t all that far from bullying.

  11. Yonmei said:

    Good stuff, Cap’n Awkward – and good luck, TDNandH. Wishing you well over the Christmas season.

    I’d recommend step away combined with barking – as in, saying really loud, really clear, really angrily – “Don’t DO That!” – and then staying out of hands-reach for the rest of the day. Be all ready to respond to questions about your behaviour with a dismissive “Yeah, Z still keeps on pulling my hair (or hitting me) like she did when we were little kids. I’m just trying to break her of it. God, can you imagine how embarrassing it’s going to be for her if she were still doing it when we’re both in our thirties?” The tone to go for, when discussing it with friends/family/strangers, is a bored kind of goodwill.

    If you’ve got any big family events coming up where both you and Z will usually be expected to be present, have an exit strategy if Z tries anything. I mention this because we’re coming up to National Disaster time of year, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, etc. Don’t sneak out, walk up to your host, explain that Z has been doing “that thing where she pulls my hair / calls me names / hits me” AGAIN (world-weary boredom here) and so you’ve just got to go. Assure your host that Z will be just fine, but you can’t be around Z when “she gets like this”, so you’re leaving, and that you’ll be getting home just fine (or, if at home, that you’ve got someplace definite to go and when you’ll be back). Go. Have a good time. If anyone gets on your case about leaving, explain (world-weary, Z’s gotta learn sometime) that you’ve learned that when Z gets “that way” – hitting you, calling you names, pulling your hair – the only thing to do is just leave. Assure them that you love Z a lot and she’s a really great sister most of the time, but sometimes, she just gets a bit weird and acts like she’s still eight. The important thing is: don’t cry, don’t act upset, don’t even act angry. You’re sorry and all, but you’ve just got to go.

    My brother and I used to fight a lot, but we both quit physically fighting when we were fourteen or fifteen – I think it had finally dawned on both of us that this would turn into serious business. But he continued to snark at me for years afterwards, and I really think he had even stopped noticing that he did it, until I called him on it once when he was staying with me when we were in our thirties.

  12. KM said:

    Good luck LW! I think whether or not your sister stops the behaviour (and I hope she does!), not just putting up with it will make you feel better. I like the phrase “that’s not acceptable”, when I’m nervous I tend to freeze and can’t think of anything to say, but I’ve trained myself to be able to blurt out “that’s not acceptable”, and it works for a multitude of situations.

  13. “…until I punched him in the face as hard as I could with mean fists and he counted that as a victory because a) ATTENSHUN! and b) I would get in trouble.”

    The fact that I couldn’t understand how many of my peers minds worked in high school suddenly seems a lot less weird. In what universe is getting punched in the face a victory? XD

  14. anonycat said:

    I’d like to suggest that when you tell your sister to stop doing something that you don’t like you should act very serious about the whole thing. In my (admittedly much less extreme), this works a lot better than, say, getting angry or upset does..

  15. AmyJ said:

    First of all: Thank you, thank you, thank you for the statements in re: “just ignore them.”

    Second of all: I used to be one of those people who would poke at people (not a sibling, but the same kind of thing). As an adult. I’m not proud of it. I did it because I wanted attention, and affection, and I didn’t have the courage to ask for it. I eventually learned by myself that it wasn’t ok. If someone had assertively shut me down, that would have definitely worked, and pretty quickly. I don’t know if I would have figured out how/gotten the courage to ask for attention and affection in more healthy ways (I think maybe I had to get there by myself), but I would have stopped the behavior, at least.

%d bloggers like this: