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#882: “I asked my sister to stop criticizing me, and now she uses her 5-year-old to do it for her.”

Hi Captain and Goat Lady:

I love my sister but she has a tendency to be negative and critical. I’ve tried to address these issues directly in the past (“e.g., when you nitpick me I don’t want to be around you”), so she’s started using her five year old son to side-step my boundaries. This allows her to disown any comments “he” makes and allows her to get angry under the guise of protecting him if I try to talk to her about it.

For example, one weekend I canceled plans with my sister and her son because I had a migraine. She told me that her son was worried I didn’t love him anymore. She will also tell me he has said things like “Aunt Anon got an apartment too far away” or “Aunt Anon is too fat” which directly mirrors what she likes to pick at me about. I’m certain he doesn’t actually say these things, but if he *does* say them it’s not a huge deal and she should be able to explain to him that yes, Aunt Anon does love him and it’s unfortunate she had to get an apartment so far away. How can I talk to her about this without inciting any protective outrage?

Thanks.

(She/her please).

Dear Aunt Anon:

Your sister’s strategy of projecting her critiques onto her kid is completely obvious and jerky. I’m sorry you have to deal with it.

You ask: “How can I talk to her about this *without inciting any protective outrage?*”

Answer: You can’t – You’re gonna talk to her, and she’s gonna feel/do/respond however she’s gonna respond. You know this because the last time you talked to her about this, she decided to make her son into her cat’s paw, and the next time you tried to talk to her about that, she got really pissed off at you out of pretend protectiveness for him.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t address it; it just means you should keep your expectations low. My suggestion: Next time she tries to float a lead balloon like “Son says Aunt Anon is too fat” say, “Hrm, interesting how [son]’s criticism is exactly like the criticism stuff I asked you to stop doing.

Your sister: “HE’S ONLY A BOY/ LEAVE HIM ALONE FOR GOD’S SAKE/ WHAT KIND OF MONSTER ARE YOU?”

You: “I’m the kind of monster who thinks commenting negatively on other people’s bodies is not cool!” See also: “I’m the kind of monster who wonders where a little kid learned it was okay to say stuff like that to adults.

Have this conversation one time. It will not go well, but I think it’s useful to let her know that you see through her hijinks.

After that, when she does it again (she’ll do it again), try this:

Her:(Son) says you don’t love him anymore.”

You:Well, good thing that’s not true.” + SUBJECT CHANGE (& if the subject change doesn’t take, end the conversation and try again another time).

Her:(Son) says ‘Aunt Anon is too fat!’

You:Well, that’s one opinion.” + SUBJECT CHANGE (& if the subject change doesn’t take, end the conversation and try again another time).

Her:(Son) says ‘Aunt Anon got an apartment that’s too far away!’

You:Sure did!” + SUBJECT CHANGE (& if the subject change doesn’t take, end the conversation and try again another time).

See also: “Obviously.” “Really.” “Interesting.” “Wow.” “You don’t say.” “That seems unlikely.” “Okay.” “Sure.” + SUBJECT CHANGE (& if the subject change doesn’t take, end the conversation and try again another time).

Like, don’t argue with the merits of a 5-year-old’s fictional opinions about you. Roll your eyes, respond briefly and boringly, and move on with the conversation. If your sister won’t let you change the subject, exit the conversation. You can make ending conversation explicitly about her refusal to change the subject (“Well, that subject change failed! Maybe next time. Gotta hang up now, love you!“), but it’s also fine to throw out a “Hey, so sorry, I need to cut this short, see you Saturday!” without giving a reason. Sometimes it’s more about reducing overall friction and making these conversations less fraught for you than convincing her she’s wrong.

When you do talk to her again, don’t bring up the awkwardness of the last time you talked. Be cool and positive until she is not cool. Then, correct her, change the subject, (if necessary), end the conversation, repeat/try again next time. The lesson is: “Sister, when you are cool, you can have my attention and my time. When you are not cool, I will not engage with you – I won’t get sucked into arguing with you about your kid’s fake opinions, I won’t hang out and let you criticize my body & where I live, I won’t play the game and try to appease you. Take it or leave it.” Over time if you’re lucky this pattern will get very boring for her and she’ll back off some. Also, her kid will get older and say stuff like “That’s not true, Mommy, YOU said that!” and you’ll get to enjoy watching your sister squirm when the little dude sells her out.

 

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137 comments
  1. Captain, I love your answer here. I despise the action of putting words in other people’s mouths to make a point, and using a 5-year-old seems especially bad to me. I’ve had this done to me by someone near to me who was very into passive-aggressive communication. I got to where I just had to shut those conversations down, either with a change of subject or by ending the conversation (hanging up the phone, excusing myself to pee, whatever worked). I remember one particularly difficult conversation where I was so frustrated that I produced The Look That Freezes Water (a facial contortion I can’t reproduce in a mirror, but never fails to get some sort of response). Damn, that worked well! That particular topic never came up again.

  2. Elder Dog said:

    Her: “Son says Blah Blah.’”

    You: “Yeah, sure he did.” + SUBJECT CHANGE (& if the subject change doesn’t take, end the conversation and try again another time.

    This worked for me with a weird aunt.

    • Big Pink Box said:

      That’s how I have to do it with my mother. The best method is to change the topic of conversation to her favourite subject – herself. Never fails.

      • JulieB. said:

        THIS!

        Works like a charm every time. And on five year olds too: “Hey, what’s that new toy you have?” “What will you do with your summer vacation?” “Who’s your best friend?”

      • Clarry said:

        I tried this with my mother. She’d ask a nosy question or make an unwarranted criticism. I’d change the subject. She’d say “you didn’t answer the question,” or “you changed the subject.” I had to resort to “that’s right, I didn’t answer,” and “I’m not talking about that” before letting it hang.

        • manybellsdown said:

          Ditto. With my mom, the conversation then became about how much I was hurting her feelings by being so rude as to change the subject from the thing she wanted to talk about.

    • crooked bird said:

      Isn’t it something how much more effective dismissal is than protest? I think it has to do with confidence. It’s like the center of power shifts. If you’re waiting for a response from *them*, if you will only be satisfied if *they* admit they are lying, you’re giving them the power. If you assume they are lying, act like it’s not a big deal, and don’t expect any response from them on the subject, the power rests with you. It’s right there in the word “dismissal”. Bosses dismiss.

      Of course it’s a power we’d damn well better use for good. I think we all know how much dismissal hurts when it’s not deserved.

  3. FlyBy said:

    If she persists with the idea that these are things her kid is saying, you can say something along the lines of “You know it hurts me to hear that, so please don’t pass it along from other people either.” Even if the kid is actually saying unlikely and hurtful things, the decent thing for her to do is not repeat it to you. The point of your boundary is that you don’t want to be hurt. She’s being disingenuous to pretend that the point is only for _her_ to not say specific things.

    • TootsNYC said:

      I just want to repeat this, bcs it’s brilliant:

      The point of your boundary is that you don’t want to be hurt. She’s being disingenuous to pretend that the point is only for _her_ to not say specific things.

    • This. Kids often do say hurtful things because they’re mean or don’t know any better (though that probably isn’t the case here). Part of being adult is knowing not to pass that stuff on.

      • Emma said:

        And also, part of being a parent is responding to your kid’s comments about other people *yourself *.

        If these were really the kid’s comments, Sister shouldn’t be passing them on; she should be explaining to Kid that sometimes people have to live in a place that’s not convenient; that it’s rude to describe someone as “too fat” and that, anyway, there’s no such thing; that auntie loves you very much and what made you think otherwise? etc

        So another tactic for LW might be to defer to Sister’s role as a parent, e.g. “well, I’m sure you’ll do a great job of explaining why that comment was inappropriate”; “don’t worry, I’m sure you can reassure him!”; “I’m glad he still has that naivety about the big things in life! ” etc + “I’ll have a big hug for him [whenever]!”

        This avoids LW winding up defending her life choices from Sister’s nastiness, and highlights the inappropriateness of her behaviour, all while keeping complete deniability for LW, because why would she *not* react that way to a child saying inappropriate things, which is definitely what is happening, right, Sister, after all, you said it was!

        • crooked bird said:

          Yeah! I mean, the Captain’s advice is probably better, but my first thought was for the LW to say with great concern, “Wow, and how do you deal with it when he makes those kind of comments?”

          • Guiomar said:

            That’s great. And how about taking it even further and being concerned–“I hope however you handle it, you should do it soon…those sorts of comments won’t win him any friends. How’s he doing in school [kindergarten, first grade], is he alienating people there with those sorts of comments?”

          • I quite like the idea of responding as if you think she’s venting to you about a problem with her kid, rather than trying to insult you.

            “Kid said ‘Auntie X looked really fat in that big ugly dress yesterday'”
            “Oh poor you, how embarrassing for you. You must be really worried that he’s saying nasty things like that. Are you concerned about him losing friends? I wonder if it’s worth talking to his teacher if this is something he does a lot…”

    • sethg said:

      I actually prefer this strategy.

      I mean, if the sister doesn’t get a rise out of passing along these comments attributed to her son, and doesn’t get the message about the OP’s boundary loud and clear, then she’ll just attribute the same kind of comments to her co-worker, her hairdresser, her priest, the monster in her anxiety closet, etc. etc. ad nauseam.

    • Turtle Candle said:

      Yeah. I had to do this with a friend–she would pass on any negative thing she heard about me (not by her child, but by mutual acquaintances, etc.). In that case I don’t actually think it was that she felt the same way and was using them as her mouthpiece, I think she just couldn’t resist stirring the pot, you know? The only way to get it to stop was to say, “Hey, I know you don’t mean it to hurt me, but it really bugs me to hear every negative rumor about myself. Can you not pass those things along?”

      She was a little miffed, but it worked.

  4. slythwolf said:

    Hey, LW, even if the kid is actually saying these things, he’s five; he’s probably just literally repeating what he hears his mother saying. Sorry you’re dealing with this.

    • Light37 said:

      Yeah, these comments are not coming out of a vacuum. Your sister sounds like a treat.

    • onyx said:

      In either case, a “Really, I wonder how he got that idea” / “Interesting. You should teach him it’s not nice to talk about people like that.” / “Wow, I thought you taught him better than to say something so unkind!” covers it.

      I know some parents are assholes and heaven forbid anyone say anything about their precious angel, but in my court, teaching children basic manners is never out of bounds. Rude is rude. And in this case it circles back into putting the blame on the sister–whether the kid actually is parroting mean things the sister says,or if sister is just pretending the comments come from him.

      LW, I’m like… future-empathizing with you because I can totally see my own sister pulling this kind of thing once/ if she has children. 😐 What an unfair and dirty tactic.

  5. TootsNYC said:

    “Aunt Anon is too fat”
    you: “okay” >silencesilencesilence<

    • TootsNYC said:

      Oh, shoot. I forgot about the carets

      “Joey says you’re getting too fat”
      you: “okay” ….silence…

      “Joey says he thinks you don’t love him anymore”
      you: “okay” …silence…

      There’s also, “Well, i don’t know what to tell you.” ….silence….

      The secret to these is that these are a full sentence–no, a full paragraph–all on their own. Just toss them out there and -stop talking-.

      • Turtle Candle said:

        YES. Just saying “okay” or “I hear you” and then stopping talking is AMAZINGLY effective.

      • I’ve used “I don’t know what to tell you” *silence* to great effect. 🙂

      • I channel my inner Sarah Palin (*shudder*) and just respond to everything with a cheery “you betcha!”

        -You moved to far away! “You betcha!”
        -You’re fat! “You betcha!”
        -Son thinks you don’t love him “You betcha!”

        I found that positively affirming everything even if it doesn’t make any sense confuses people into silence.

        • TootsNYC said:

          lovely!

        • Klara said:

          I love it.

  6. Fran Shamen said:

    LW, what your sister doing is shitty and wrong and essentially an adult, passive-aggressive version of “does this bug you? I’m not touching you!”

    I have my own awful relatives who like to dress up hurtful things in the guise of helpful advice, and I cannot endorse the captain’s response enough. Shitty relatives want your life to revolve around the importance of their opinion. That’s what your sister’s “protective outrage” really is, she’s incensed she can’t control you with her disapproval. She wants to wield it like a weapon when it’s really a popsicle stick. Make her opinion nothing, possibly by saying to yourself “no one who uses a five-year-old as a manipulation tool deserves my time” because WHOA DOGGY that is some crappy behavior.

    You deserve better.

    • Yep, her opinion is nothing BECAUSE she’s resorted to using a five-year-old.

      I’d even say that, along with the Captain’s suggestion, you could respond to ANYTHING she repeats on his behalf with the words “he’s five” in various tones.

      “Jr. says Auntie doesn’t love him anymore!”
      “He’s five!” (Reassuringly, as in, “he’ll get over it/doesn’t really mean that”)

      “Jr says that Auntie moved too far away.”
      “He’s five.” (Dryly, to emphasize that a child knows nothing of distance and housing markets)

      “Jr says that Auntie is getting really fat.”
      “He’s FIVE.” (Incredulous and a li’l bit judgemental, like “why is a five-year-old taking on adult body-shame issues?”)

      This takes the wind out of her “he’s only a child!” defense, because you’re using those same grounds to dismiss his “opinions” altogether. Bonus: since these are really HER opinions that she is either attributing to him or has actually trained him to parrot, you’re dismissing HER as childish. Win!

      • I like this strategy!

      • meallaaoi said:

        BRILLIANT!

      • BigdogLittlecat said:

        This. All of this!

      • Leonine said:

        I was thinking a slightly more aggressive passive-aggressive approach:

        Sis: Pubert said Auntie Awesomesauce is fat!
        AA: Wow, how awkward for you! [Googles furiously] Here’s a parenting site with a bunch of articles about how to deal with rude, inappropriate comments from small children. I’ll send you some links!

        #fightfirewithfire

        • #fightfirewithfive

      • I was thinking the exact same thing…. he’s a five year old. Just approach as, “Gee, the goofy/silly/ridiculous stuff children say”. I really, really like this, because it’s also subtly pointing out how immature and juvenile *she* is being.

  7. lisakoby said:

    Frankly as someone who has small kids that say occasional ridiculous and rude things, I have never repeated them to the subject of the comment,but had a convo directly with said kid about the feelings that led to the comment.

    • Ainomiaka said:

      This seems like the much more kind and reasonable thing to do.

      • lisakoby said:

        There is no world where telling my MIL that my kids think her hair is weird pays off for anyone.

        • Taketombo said:

          This. So much this. With us it’s “Gramma smells gross” (she smokes).

          She’s smoked for fifty years. She’s not going to stop. I don’t pass it on. (Obligatory: I also don’t let her smoke near my kids, or in my house, but the smell lingers on skin/hair/clothes. And they do hug).

    • This is what I was gonna say. Kids see the world differently, especially when they’re very young. Not everything a kid says is adorable and needs to be repeated to everyone. Like, even if your kid (any age) says horrible mean things about your sister… why would you feel the need to repeat them to her? You have a choice not to. At that point, regardless of what the kid said, you’re (fictional you) the one doing the insulting.

    • hbc said:

      Yeah, five-year-olds are going to say hurtful things, so you celebrate when they say them out of earshot of the subject, you don’t make sure the message gets delivered.

      (My kid knows better than to comment on people’s weight, but apparently thought “Why do you eat so much?” was a clever workaround.)

      • S said:

        I remember when my sister was that age, actual conversation:

        No offense Shinobi, but You’re kinda fat
        That’s a really mean thing to say!
        But I said no offense!

        She literally thought that as long as she said no offense people couldn’t get mad. Is meandorable a thing?

        • entendante said:

          She literally thought that as long as she said no offense people couldn’t get mad.

          I know some adults who fervently believe the same thing (and/or its corollaries, “with all due respect” and “I’m not racist, but…”). It’s markedly less cute on them. 😉

          • S said:

            It’s sad that not everyone had a big sister willing to yell things like “JUST BECAUSE YOU SAY NO OFFENSE DOESN’T MAKE IT NO OFFENSE.”

            Sadly I have been informed I cannot yell and stomp my foot at other adults and be taken seriously.

          • I like to quote Terry Pratchett on this one:
            “With respect,” said Ponder Stibbons, without respect…

        • Emily said:

          That kinda reminds me of the time I told my mom to shut her mouth – I knew that “shut up” was rude, but somehow thought that “shut your mouth” was okay because it was a different phrase?

          I learned pretty quickly not to do that.

    • Guava said:

      Right! But I’ll wager your intention is to teach your kids about kindness and manners, rather than using them to manipulate others. It’s how I handle my kids when they want to see a friend, but that friend is busy. I explain that people have plans sometimes and aren’t available at your beck and call, but if you invite them to something else, you can see them another day. I’m so tired of parents calling me up and saying things like, “Wilbur is so sad that Bran can’t play with him today!” as if I am responsible for managing their child’s every single, solitary feeling.

      • winter said:

        o.ô That is an absurd thing to call about. Literally expecting you to manage their own children’s feelings *shakes head*

        • Guava said:

          I think so too! And yet – I can think of three different parents, off the top of my head, who regularly engage in this behavior. To the point where I have to remind myself and my friends (whose kids socialize with them too) that this is really manipulative and Not OK.

    • Redgirl said:

      Yes! Heck, I’d be mortified to admit to anyone that my kid said anything bad about them. It would make me look like I didn’t teach him any manners!

  8. Katamari said:

    Deflect + subject change is the way to go.

    “Little Buddy says Aunty lives too far away”

    “Hahahaha, kids say the weirdest things. So I saw an interesting thing on TV yesterday…”

    • MadDissector said:

      My answer to that would have been “for kids, everything is too far, adults are too large and there is never enough ice cream.”

      In my case, I live two countries away from my sister’s and I only have the chance of seeing my niece and nephew max twice per year. And she would say to me that the kids constantly mention missing me and about when I should be visiting. I am not impressed by her telling me so, because I never had a chance of bonding with the, and they are very young, so they might forget who I am more frequently than not. And, if they remember me, I am a person that sends parcels for birthdays and that comes twice the year, brings presents and then cannot play with them because their mother needs to tell me how amazing her life is. It’s not the kids wanting me to come around, it’s my sister.

      • Rana said:

        “everything is too far, adults are too large and there is never enough ice cream”

        This could easily become a mantra, and not just for children! 🙂

        • I was about to say, “…right. For, uh, kids.” 🙂

  9. neverjaunty said:

    LW, your sister sounds like a piece of work. She’s so emotionally desperate to be nasty to you that she’s using her son as a human marionette, and then getting angry at you when you call her on the situation SHE put him in?

    Mostly I feel really sorry for her son.

    But use the Captain’s excellent advice. It’ll be hilarious (if sad) to watch her spin her wheels.

    • My take is a little different from yours. I believe Sister is commenting on things that upset her about herself. That is, Sister is anxious about getting fat, Sister sometimes doesn’t like Nephew, Sister wishes she were far away.

      • neverjaunty said:

        That could very well be. Either way, it’s so emotionally important to Sister to say these things than she’ll dump the responsibility on her son. What a horrible person.

  10. I’d also be tempted to reply with a cheerful ‘Well, I’m sure you’ll be able to deal with that’. Possibly prefaced with a sympathetic ‘Gosh, kids sometimes say tactless things at that age, don’t they?’

    • I use that one on my (very similar) friend. I’ve been tempted to say, “Ha, it’s amazing how rude kids can be before you teach them manners. I assume you ARE doing that?” but no, do not try this at home.

      • helva2260 said:

        See also the “And my cat says you’re [insert insult of choice]. Your point is?” response. Fun to think about, just as relevant and helpful to the conversation as their gem – but definitely better not to actually carry out.

        • BigdogLittlecat said:

          I confess that I have shared my dog’s opinions as a way to shut down pointless conversations.

          • neverjaunty said:

            Except that the pets don’t understand what’s being said to (or about them) and a five-year-old does. Buying into the pretense that the child actually said these things not only feeds Sister’s fake protective response, it’s going to be pretty upsetting to the kid, who’s caught between obeying his shitsack of a mother and having Auntie blame him for it.

    • Guava said:

      “Of course little Sayden doesn’t know better. Looks like it’s time for you two to have the manners chat! I’d hate for him to lose friends over comments like that when he starts school.”

  11. This is something my ex has totally done when our daughter doesn’t talk to him on his schedule. He tells her that her half-siblings think she doesn’t love them anymore. It’s really shitty and manipulative. And of course it backfires because who wants to talk to a guilt tripper?

    She just calls her stepmother now to talk to her siblings and doesn’t speak to her dad at all.

    • Megan M. said:

      I am feeling flames on the side of my face over your ex – what a crappy thing for him to do! 😦

    • RSVP said:

      How lucky that her stepmother at least has her interests at heart. Sadly, the woman will probably divorce him eventually because he’s probably manipulative to other people in other ways.

    • hrovitnir said:

      Euuugh this is not really relevant to the letter (sorry LW! Your sister is being a jerk and the advice here is excellent) but: after I stopped talking to my father because of his wildly inappropriate behaviour, his partner told her 8 yo daughter that I didn’t care about her/want to see her any more. My GOD I hate that woman. I have so much seething anger toward people who will hurt their children to get at other people. /OT

  12. Brooks said:

    Not at all sure whether this is likely to be helpful, but I’d be tempted to reply by asking, “So, what did you say to him when he said that?” It refocuses things a bit on what she says, rather than what he says.

    There’s also the slightly-pointed slightly passive-aggressive, “So, how did you reassure him / tell him that wasn’t a nice thing to say when he said that?” option, if you want to see how she spins her wheels saying she didn’t do that.

    • I gave up asking my friend “so what did you say” when I realised how good she was at quickly making up stories. She’ll always claim to have said something both wise and witty in my defence and something about what a lovely person I am.

      • Allya said:

        In this case, LW could take her at her word and say something like “that’s great! Sounds like you’ve got it handled. In future, you don’t need to pass those kinds of remarks on to me.”

  13. Wow. I have a friend who does exactly this – she uses other people to tell me what she really thinks of me without fear of repercussion, even when it’s painfully obvious that while it would be a typical thing for her to say, the person she attributes it to would never say it. I deal with it by taking her at face value and saying exactly what I think of “that person” in a way I would not normally say directly to her for fear of hurting her feelings. The way I see it, if she lies to disown a comment then she loses the right to a polite response.

    For example, she said, “My brother said he didn’t like the way you were waving the baby around in that blanket thing at the party.” I replied, “Wow, if he said that then it’s really none of his business. If he’d had the manners to approach me directly and politely tell me he was curious about what I was doing, I’d have told him that piece of equipment was designed to rock my daughter exactly as I was doing and it really calmed her.” See also: “Wow, he said that? That’s bizarrely out of character for him; I think we should take that with a pinch of salt” and “I’m not sure why you felt you needed to report that conversation to me.” She often backpedals and claims that she heroically defended me and shot the antagonist down with a dazzling display of wit, which I sort of take as an “oh, OK, I take it back.” I probably shouldn’t engage in her passive-aggressive games, but hey, it works.

    Like LW’s sister, she also uses her children to do this. It’s often pretty obvious when she’s lying as she attributes quotes and observations to them that are way above their verbal or deductive abilities. It’s a bit trickier when a child has supposedly said something, but I often say, “Oh dear, well you’re a good mum so I guess you told her that was a rude thing to say about someone.” Of course she’ll say yes, she gave the kid a good telling off. Last time it happened I then told her, “You don’t have to tell me everything she says about me. If it’s negative, I’d rather not hear it. I’m confident enough in your parenting abilities to know you can deal with minor misbehaviours like that.” That was the last time so I don’t know if it worked…

    • BigdogLittlecat said:

      Brilliant!

  14. Elektra FIre said:

    I’d be tempted to say smile brightly and say ‘well, it’s great he has a mom like you who can reassure him he doesn’t need to worry about that’. Then SUBJECT CHANGE.

  15. Ioethe said:

    My mother does this. Any negative opinion is always something someone else has said to her which she feels duty bound to pass on. You might want to try these;

    “Little Jimmy said you’re fat”
    “I doubt that” + subject change.

    “Little Jimmy said you live too far away”
    “Seems unlikely” + subject change.

    Alternatively, when it’s as unlikely as this, going into exhaustive details helps sometimes.

    “Little Jimmy said you’re fat”
    “Really? When did this come up? How did he look when he said it? What was he wearing? What did you say to him?”

    The point is to make it clear that you know she’s lying. It doesn’t work forever but it can give you a break for a few conversations.

    • Will I Am said:

      Wow. Better than perfect!

    • Elektra said:

      I like this, a lot.

    • BigdogLittlecat said:

      This is an excellent way to tone down my natural response, which would be a direct call out that I think she’s lying:
      “Little Jimmy said you’re fat.”
      “I don’t believe you.”

  16. Taketombo said:

    90% of this sounds like LW’s sister using her 5 year old as a second mouthpiece.

    10% sounds like the kid being sad that his aunt, who (depending on how sis manages expectations) didn’t come over for a planned afternoon.

    Personal Story(s) Time:
    1) When I was a kid, I had several alcoholic relatives. Some lived a few towns over, the others in the next state. We’d see them at [HOLIDAY] and they’d promise to visit us/have us visit/go to local awesome theme park/etc. with us. It never happened. My mom finally sat them down and had a very awkward talk of: you can’t tell elementary school kids you’re going to do [FUN THING] and then not do it. I’ll get pestered by them about it for months. Because they are loving relatives (aside from the booze) and she got through, they stopped making promises, and I stopped being sad that I never got to go stay with auntie and her chickens and rabbits in the summer LIKE SHE PROMISED.

    2) Now I’m a parent. I have a friend, who due to health & mental health issues, often “flakes out” at the last minutes. Sometimes they call or text – after they should have been here – sometimes they don’t. At the start they were invited to all of the kid stuff – parties, picnics in the park, etc. But when you’re a toddler … and even 5 … an hour’s difference moves us from playtime into snack/lunch time, or nap time, etc. It’s really hard to deal with someone who’s throwing the kids whole schedule off by being late or a no-contact no-show.

    So after dealing with a 4-6’s yer olds questions and tears about “why didn’t friend come?” (friend always had cool toys and snacks and is much beloved of kids), I started to invite friend only to things where it didn’t matter if they came or not … and NOT EVEN HINTING to the kid that friend might be there. If they came, they came. If they didn’t, they didn’t.

    When I realized that I was doing the same to friend as my mom had done to my alcoholic relatives, it was a real eye-opener. It let me know that when friend flaked on me I was an adult and I could be hurt, but still say to friend “that’s ok. I know you need the time to lay in the dark/cuddle a pet/call your therapist/etc.” but when friends last minute cancellations HURT my kids (in that I’m yelling at them to behave when nap time should have started an hour ago because we’re waiting for friend, who might text in 10 more minutes to let us know they’re not coming) … I started seeing friend a lot less. I can’t meet up with them because a 5 year old will get excited then disrupted and sad.

    End personal stories.

    So a script might be – if the kid fearing LW doesn’t love him is true – “Sis, you know I get migraines. I’d love to be there every Saturday to help nephew build with blocks/feed the ducks/catch em all, but sometimes I can’t. Please don’t make plans you need me there for; I don’t want him to be sad when they’re cancelled.

    Of course, none of that applies if this is 100% LW’s sister’s BS. It’s just that many five year olds really can’t understand why a promised thing isn’t happening and there will be questions. And that _might_ be hard on sis, so she’s taking it (and everything else) out on LW.

    • Mary said:

      Yes. On the whole, I think the sister is being an asshole and the Captain’s advice is the way to go. But if you wanted to try a slightly less hardcore version to try first, you could try, “Well, OK, clearly [my migraine/my flat/my weight] isn’t something I’m going to change. So are you saying you want us to talk about a strategy for how you respond to comments like that and reassure him?” This is negotiation tactic: define the disagreement as an external problem, and treat your “opponent” as someone who is part of your team and wants to work with you to find solutions. In this version, the problem isn’t your sister being an asshole and demanding that you change, it’s your nephew being upset by something which isn’t changeable, and you and your sister being the grown-ups who are figuring out how to help your nephew not be upset.

      What this tells you straight away is whether your sister is interested in having any kind of good-faith discussion. If she is, and she’s genuinely worried about how XYZ will affect her son, then this gives her an opportunity to have that conversation. But I strongly suspect that she’s just being an asshole (the “worries you don’t love him” comment is SO SO SO FAR OVER THE LINE), and that she’ll reject your attempt to discuss reassuring her son in favour of saying things like, “Well, I wouldn’t have to if you’d just …” At which point you’ll be back on the Captain’s scripts anyway!

      • misspiggy said:

        Oo, that’s genius…

      • cruelmistress said:

        I love this because of how nonconfrontational it is. The Captain is always saying that we can encourage good behavior by treating people like it is the behavior they are expected to have– it isn’t always going to work, but it might make Sister question the rightness or naturalness of her position if she falls out of step with the script that “Sister is always criticizing me” that has dominated LW’s family for so long.

      • Taketombo said:

        If I were more eloquent and tactful I would have included this in my comment. Thank you so much for following up with it.

  17. Lily said:

    Your sister: “My son said you’re fat!”
    You: “Well, maybe you should watch more carefully what you say about me where he can hear it.”

    • Will I Am said:

      Haha! Perfect!

  18. Will I Am said:

    It’s referred to as passive-aggressive behavior. Google “how to deal with my passive-aggressive sister”. You’ll get you answer, trust me.

  19. Aloot said:

    “This allows her to disown any comments “he” makes and allows her to get angry under the guise of protecting him if I try to talk to her about it.”

    Another approach may be to call her out on the fact that she still has her own agency when it comes to things she says, no matter who said them first. Keep the focus on who is actually uttering the words to you, and don’t defend yourself against whatever accusations she throws at you – because those are meant to derail you and let her take control of the situation. Stay as calm as possible throughout.

    “Why do you say these things when I have already told you to stop doing that?”

    “But it’s not *me,* it’s my son!”

    “No, the person who said those words to me was YOU. Not your son. Why do you say these things to me after I’ve told you to stop doing so?”

    “Angry words because I am protecting him! How dare you attack him!”

    “Your son isn’t here. He is not the one who said that to me. Why do you say these things to me after I’ve told you to stop doing so?”

    “Very angry words because I hate that you are calling me ut on my bullshit and won’t let me shift the blame onto you! J’accuse! J’accuse!”

    “The words came out of *your* mouth. Why do you say these things to me afer I’ve already told you to stop doing so?”

    Of course, your sister is going to get angrier and angrier with you because you won’t back down (and the anger is meant to *get* you to back down), so if you’re not willing to withstand that particular storm then it’s probably wisest to use another method.

    • The Gum Beneath My Shoe said:

      What a great point to take. Filling that tactic away..

  20. Dear LW:

    You know your sister, I don’t, but I have a tactical thought that might be helpful. Here it is: don’t try to “win” this. She won’t acknowledge that she’s the person who thinks you’re fat or faraway. So forget that part.

    Imagine a world where what she said happened (i.e. Nephew said that stuff) really happened.

    Now there are two problems 1) someone says mean things about you and 2) someone repeats then.

    You can treat the real world (where Sister makes stuff up) like the imaginary world. That is, you address the annoyance of insult as the Captain suggests, with changes of subject and ending the conversation.

    If you want to, you can also address the imaginary world: Oh. Sister, you know I hate being insulted about my weight, my location, my illness, so please don’t repeat comments about those things. Even from Nephew.

    I suggest this because it worked for me. I find that saying “you know” (when it’s true) reminds people who love me that we should be on the same team.

    Either way, I’m sad you’re having a hard time with your sister. My brother is very dear to me, and when we have disagreed or been distant it’s been excruciating.

    • S said:

      I think letting go of “Winning” is such an important thing when you are dealing with this kind of manipulative behavior.

      It is extremely unlikely that someone who is this manipulative is going to look at their behavior and go “you’re right, I’ve been such a jerk, I’m sorry.” It’s not that they haven’t been a jerk, it’s that they’ve been SUCH a jerk that acknowledging their own behavior would be too hurtful for them. It is easier for their brain to make up an entirely fictional universe where they aren’t a jerk, than to look at what they are doing and recognize their own jerky behavior.

      I know that is particularly frustrating when you’re dealing with long term situations where people have been jerks long term. (Like parents who remember being great parents and are suddenly confused that their kids are mad about all the abuse.) Memories are in a lot of ways just stories that we tell ourselves. Sister is telling herself a story where her son agrees with all her criticisms. Whether the son actually said any of that stuff or not, she’s going to keep acting like it really happened.

      • It’s even harder to let go of winning when you’re dealing with a good person with blind spots. So yeah, my mother had a history of whacked statements about my weight – during a period when her weight fluctuated. Which I couldn’t make her acknowledge were nonsense. I knew it was unconnected to me, but boy, I wanted her to admit it.

        I laughed about with friends, but I was still upset and angry for a while.

    • aebhel said:

      I think this is very good advice. I doubt LW will get her sister to admit that she’s making these things up, but even in her fantasy world she has no excuse for passing along insults from a 5-year-old.

  21. RSVP said:

    I feel really sorry for the poor kid. Eventually he’s going to be old enough to realize that his mother is using him as a weapon against people and he’ll be really angry that she’s ruined possible relationships that he could have had.

    • Polychrome said:

      Yeah — I kind of find myself wanting the aunt to keep putting up with the sister in order to be a positive presence in the life of this kid. His mom is a manipulative nightmare.

  22. Clarry said:

    When you tell me these negative and critical comments that my nephew has supposedly said nitpicking about me, I don’t want to be around you.

    • That’s a good one!

  23. Sheelzebub said:

    “Son thinks you live too far away.”

    GOSH I WONDER WHY THAT IS, SISTER?

  24. jd said:

    How about taking down her veneer of plausible deniability and not letting it be about her son’s supposed actions, but her definite ones? “Sister, when I said I was done hearing criticisms and nitpicks from you, that included you sharing them with me via things your son has apparently said. He’s five and he’s going to say what he wants, and is probably in no small part influenced by what he hears from you, but it’s *your* choice to share those things with me and that’s not okay. It makes me feel like you’re using my nephew as a shield to get across the things you really want to say that I asked you not to, and that *REALLY* makes me want to not spend time with you. I would love it if you would focus on the things you like about me instead of things we disagree about that just are not going to change. And if your son is saying these things, I’d hope you’d do the kind thing and explain to him why it’s not nice to say things like that about people so that he can develop good habits, instead of hurrying to share them with me, which is hurtful. At the very least, when we spend time together I don’t want to hear comments about my appearance or lifestyle. I’m a grown-up who is perfectly able to make my own decisions and abide by them.”

  25. Guava said:

    Hell’s bells. The mother of one of my kid’s friends does this. She used to go after me, but I’ve learned not to respond to the: “Chester was so sad that Leonard didn’t attend his baseball championship ceremonial sleepover!” comments. Lately, Chester has been emailing Leonard directly with elaborate guilt trip messages, and they’re all worded exactly like the mom wrote them herself.

    • Sheelzebub said:

      Oh, ew. Seriously, that’s gross on so many levels. I feel bad for Chester and for the LW’s nephew.

      • Guava said:

        Me too. I wonder how many years of this b.s. the kids have to go through before their own mothers completely ick them out.

    • Oh goodness, this. I’ve gone VLC with my mother, who lives 4 hours away with my brother. My brother is an adult and has learning difficulties. I know how he speaks, how he writes, the phrases he uses, the spelling he knows / gets wrong. So when an email suddenly comes through in my mother’s tone, telling me how she… I mean HE, haha!.. .feels, well I know who actually wrote that one. And it goes in the trash.

      • Guava said:

        Right? It’s so obvious. These are people who think that, if they close their eyes, they’re invisible.

  26. Jenna said:

    Well, saying that you didn’t like being around her when she nitpicking you produced a very slight change, but she’s kind of listening? Maybe try this one next:
    “When you pass along other people’s nitpicking, I still don’t want to be around you”
    It’s still focused on her behavior, which is the actual problem. Her son may or may not be saying the things, but, he’s five. Sister is the one actually saying it to you. Ask her not to pass it on to you.
    This is actually similar to how I would dodge negative gossip in a workplace, too. Whether or not the person passing the negativity believes it, I don’t want to hear it. Please don’t tell me this or pass it to me.

  27. JetGirl said:

    The first time I met my niece, she was five years old. I said hello to her, she glared at me and said “when are you getting married?” No hello. My brother had trained her well. He and I have since been estranged, though I tried to reach out to her occasionally. But I fear that well has been thoroughly poisoned, at least until they need a favor, in which case “but faaamily…”

    • BigdogLittlecat said:

      Oh, that is so sad, on so many levels. That poor child is not only being trained to be rude AF, it sounds like she’s getting brainwashed about marriage’s being central to a woman’s identity.

      To keep handy for questions like that: “June 31st.”

      • roramich said:

        Or May 40th! great idea!

      • T_T said:

        March 32nd?

      • VG said:

        “The day after never.”

      • “The Twelfth of Never,” if you’re fond of the oldies.

      • JetGirl said:

        I imagine her parents’ nasty divorce, and her beloved daddy shacking up with a new woman five minutes later and parenting her two young sons likely changed her perspective now that she’s 16.

  28. Temperance said:

    My mother is the queen of this. She is a negative, nasty person with a personality disorder. She concocts bizarre stories (“you know, your dance teacher pulled me aside to tell me that she thinks you aren’t trying hard at all, and that you’re the worst in the class” is one memorable example) and then passes along to show how helpful she is, and how she just wants me to know that other people think I suck as much as she does.

    Your sister is an ass. I disagree with Captain’s advice, but that’s because I’m confrontational and sick of bullies. With my mother, I had to point out that I didn’t think that Ms. Teacher would say that. With your sister, I would probably say something like “I hope you’re telling Nephew that I love him, and that you’re reinforcing that he shouldn’t ever comment on people’s weight/appearance because it can be hurtful and rude”. And then reinforce that she’s either lying or a bad parent.

    • My narcissist mother regularly told me how much everyone was always complaining about me and finding fault, but it wasn’t a shield, as she found plenty of fault independently and owned it. (She also used my body as an ongoing project, complaining about posture, my choice of outfits, my flat arches, the curvature of my spine, my overbite, my hair style, my facial expression, my this, my that, always suggesting drastic measures–e.g., breaking my pelvis and sticking me in a cast for up to two years to ‘correct’ a minor hip socket defect that doesn’t hurt me and is barely noticeable even when it is pointed out–that I was saved from only because she is really, really cheap and surgeries are expensive.) As a result, I have struggled with feelings of no self-worth, trusting people who say they like me or say something nice, etc.

      All those “X said you were Y” messages really do linger like a bad smell, only they eat away at you for years. It’s not like you have the tools to fight them off when you’re a child in the process of trying to build up normal levels of self-esteem, and it is difficult or impossible to escape from a determined spirit-stomper. (If you are a fairly well-adjusted adult, it is easier to shrug this sort of comment off and protect yourself, to the point of cutting negative people out of your social loop.)

      Sounds like you have found a good way to deal with your mom being an ass. Mine is impervious to most things.

  29. This actually happened to me just a couple hours ago with my grandmother. My cousin is living with her for a bit, and her nephew (grandma’s great grandson) came for a visit. Grandma made an awkward and unnecessary introduction to this kid I’ve met before. I was like “We’ve met many times,” in a neutral, friendly tone. Then grandma says “Well, he says he neeeeever sees you, so since you don’t visit, I had to make sure he knows who you are.” I replied “Oooooooooookay……….” Then, the kiddo even speaks up and says, “Yeah, we’ve met.” LOL. It was such a weird “But We’reeeeee Faaaaaaaamily” moment. What an interesting new tactic for grandma to try. I can’t imagine dealing with that on the regular, LW. I think the advice here is perfect. Good luck!

  30. One other thought, LW, for when you’re feeling like confrontation. Ask your sister Why?

    That is, to each insult and attack you say “Why are you telling me this? You know I find it hurtful.” Then wait for an answer (she won’t really answer).

    Ask her again. Wait for a response.

    At some point she’s likely to change the subject or stalk out.

    Even essentially kind people (who are doing a mean thing, but pretend they don’t know it’s mean) are shocked out of the land of plausible deniability by this.

    Again, this is something I’ve said. It’s ended attacks. The only down side is that both I and my interlocutor felt lousy for a few minutes.

  31. BigdogLittlecat said:

    “Why are you telling me this?” is one of the strongest tools in a toolbox.

  32. MrsLokiofAsgard said:

    What works for me when these conversations are taking place on the phone is silence. I literally won’t speak. I’ll wait until the other person asks “Hello? Are you there?” to which I’ll reply “Oh, yes…I’m here…I’m just trying to process why you think it’s okay to talk to me like that. I think I need to hang up now.” and then I just click off. My husband used to tell me I was rude (usually after I did this to his mom) but now he uses it when talking to her (because I stopped talking to her altogether and left him to do it). It’s REALLY effective!!!

    • MadDissector said:

      Oh gosh, I have this tendency of shutting up when someone is giving me an opinion about something I have done, specially when given in a very aggressive, accusatory way, because deep inside I realise that I don’t have the energy (or the wish) to engage in that kind of conversation. My mother has noticed that and, every time she is the one engaging in an unilateral exchange of opinions, she points at my silence and says “Oh, you giving me the silence, therefore I must have had offended you with The Truth, and you know that it’s useless to reply because you’re in the wrong.” Lately I have resorted to the “If believing that makes you happy…”, but still…

  33. I’ve had quite a few people in my life who thought it was a great idea to tell me verbatim negative or hurtful stuff other people (including small children) have said (or maybe not actually said) about me. I’ve had a lot of success with saying: “And you’re telling me this why, exactly?”
    Frequently people couldn’t give a sensible reason why it was at all important for me to know.

    When it’s someone’s kid, I have been known to ask “And then what did you say to them/her/him?” to show that I fully expect them to correct and discourage hurtful comments made by their child.

  34. The Gum Beneath My Shoe said:

    (Child “says” Criticism)

    “He’s never said anything like that to me- we’re very good friends. -Can you put him on the phone with me now?” Let your honest surprise and concern show in your voice.

    Or turn the topic back to Sister

    “Boy, being a parent is really one thing after another, isn’t it? What do you say to him to teach him he can’t say things like that?” The trick would be to stay disengaged, a bit amused, and scholarly, as if you are making notes for learning parenting techniques.

  35. Jamethiel said:

    UGH THESE KIND OF PEOPLE. I have an aunt like this.

    Aunty Passive-Aggressive: [XYZ] said this hurtful thing about you!
    Me: Wow. Why would you tell me that?
    APA: I’m just telling you what they said!
    Me: What I’m more concerned about is why you felt the need to tell me something rude and hurtful.
    APA: BUT THEY SAID IT.
    Me: And you are the one actually hurting me by saying it to me. Why would you do that?

    Lather, rinse repeat.

    Eventually after we’d had this conversation about 50 times, I just started saying with a smile “OK, well, you’re saying mean things to me again so I’m gonna go have fun elsewhere,” and walking away.

    Her kids (who are actually pretty good people for all that I have nothing in common with them) are all going “Oh my god! I don’t know how you had the guts to say that!” and I tell them it’s because I will actually leave, and won’t feel even a scrap of guilt about it. I would prefer to catch up one-on-one than do big family events, so if someone gives me an excuse to go sit in a coffee shop, have cake and read a book all afternoon, I am delighted!

  36. caraway said:

    The fact that she’s passing these on to you is a dead giveaway, right?

    I would have my conversation include some “Mmm. Why are you repeating this to me?” Because she really ought not to be, under any circumstances, if he did say it.

    I would be tempted by ” oh what cute stories you tell on your children.”

    • caraway said:

      Oops right, can’t put those literal angle brackets in. Imagine yourself a puzzled look and then a brittle smile.

  37. K said:

    I also enjoy using the phrase “wow, that’s rude. As in:

    “Son says you’re too fat.”

    “Wow, that’s rude.”

    • Redgirl said:

      I like that, because it’s not clear whether you mean the kid is rude or mom is. 🙂

      • Allya said:

        The only problem with this approach is that the ambiguity gives Sister ammunition to get all angryprotective of her son, which is LW’s current problem.

  38. sad kid said:

    This poor kid. Some of my family is a little like this, and it’s taking me forever to learn how I should actually interact with people (Captain Awkward is helping out with that a lot!).

    Anyway, LW, I hope it goes well for you, and for your nephew.

    • Polychrome said:

      Yeah — I feel very worried about that kid. As a parent of a small kid, you meet a lot of amazing people you wouldn’t meet otherwise (parents whose kids are thrown together with your kid one way or another) — but you also meet some people who use their children as their own personal parade of passive aggressiveness and it’s SO creepy and unfair. I mean it basically turns little people into tools during their vulnerable formative years. It’s horrible.

  39. H.Regalis said:

    I don’t have kids, so maybe it’s different then, but I cannot fathom a world where you tell someone something like, “My five-year-old son thinks you’re too fat,” with an expectation of them being like, “OMG I BETTER LOSE WEIGHT RIGHT NOW!!1” Little kids say all kinds of inapprpriate stuff; it happens. But going around repeating that to everyone? I just feel like most people’s reaction would be more wondering why you aren’t scolding your child for saying mean and hurtful things, or making extra sure you don’t talk about XYZ in earshot of the kids because you don’t want them going aroud repeating certain things to people who don’t need to hear them.

    • Redgirl said:

      Nope, not different. I’m a parent. My son has said inappropriate things. I explain to him why these things are considered unkind, and would never, EVER share them with people I know they would hurt!!!

  40. Echobeta said:

    I have a slight alteration to the Captain’s script. Leave off the “to adults” part when responding, “I’m the kind of monster who wonders where a little kid learned it was okay to say stuff like that to adults.”

    It is NOT OKAY for a little kid (or anyone) to say stuff like that to other little kids either. Just imagine nephew telling another 5 year old on the playground that s/he is “too” fat.

    To the parents on here: yes I know that little kids say the darndest things, and I’m not going to hold it against you or your kid if they happen to act rude or say something mean. The difference here is that sister may be teaching nephew to say mean things.

    By the way, I also really like the advice from so many other commenters (especially FlyBy) to ask sister not to repeat criticisms of Auntie Anon regardless of who is supposedly saying them.

  41. gmg said:

    I had a good friend who, for reasons only she knows, decided once she had two kids that she only wanted other moms for friends. I remember a really awkward lunch around the time of this apparent decision at which the conversation alternated between passive-aggressive comments from her about how only other moms can understand [insert basic aspect of her life situation here] … and passive-aggressive comments about my outfit, table manners etc from her THREE-YEAR-OLD SON, who up to that point had basically hero-worshiped his Auntie GMG. I do not believe this was a coincidence.

  42. Angiportus said:

    I really liked this one, in the sense of there being many answers I wish that I’d had handy back in the day. In those cases there were no kids involved, but X would come up to me and say that Y had said bad things about me–or they wouldn’t even name Y but would just get all coy about who it was, while sounding like they themselves believed the slander. It was just what I didn’t need, and the last time it happened, I was able to say “So toddle back to whoever it was and tell them to shut the @$#^& up”, and she did and they did and that was the end of it. But I still felt like I needed a bottle of brain bleach.
    I recall a high school teacher I once had who said, “If anyone is talking behind my back, it can just stay there.” And that is now one of my mottos.
    This site rules, BTW. Keep up the good work, all.

  43. Alianne said:

    My sister-in-law tried this on me once–and only once. Quick background, she and brother-in-law have three kids, my spouse and I have none. At a holiday gathering:

    Sister-in-law: Oh, Princess, there’s your aunt! Go say hi!

    *six-year-old Princess comes bouncing up* Hi, Aunt Ali! When are you going to have a baby for me to play with?

    Me: *big smile, in a completely audible voice* Did your momma tell you to ask me that?

    Princess: Yes! She said to say it just like that!

    Sister-in-law: *is visibly mortified*

    Me: *still smiling, still audible* Well, I’m sure if your momma REALLY wants an answer to that question, she can ASK ME LATER. Right now, I think I’d much rather talk to you. Tell me about your Christmas party at school!

    Never underestimate the embarrassment-power of a completely oblivious small child.

    • Private Editor said:

      You’re like a Jedi Knight of self-possession and cool. I bow before you.

    • H.Regalis said:

      That is AWESOME. Not that your sister-in-law did that, but how it played out sounds hilarious.

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