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.