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?
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.