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Dear Dr. Debra,


My mom is staying with me for a visit.  She knows I canít stand my sister.  I honestly, totally despise her.  So what does Mom do?  Talks about her, all the time.  Iíve heard all about their three-level deck, the two plasma TVs, the new Volvo, everything done by any of the dozens of grandkids for the last year, all about their trip to Belize tomorrow, their cruise to wherever last month, their trip to Taiwan last fall--all on the churchís money in the guise of mission trips.  If I say something about my own grandchildren, Iím interrupted by tales of one of my sisterís.  Iíve held my tongue, swallowed the smart-ass replies, but Iíve reached my limit.  Iím about to unload on an old lady with both barrels if I canít find a way to stop this.  Any advice on how to deal with a parent who constantly lets you know how ďsuccessfulĒ your sibling is (as opposed to you, of course) when you do NOT want to hear it?


A daughter whoís about to explode




Dear exploding daughter,


Your situation with your mother sounds so painful, and I can understand why youíre feeling hurt and angry with her.  Itís hard when a parent favors one child over another.  Parental approval is important to children.  And weíre never too old to hear personal compliments from our parents.  If youíve always strived for your motherís approval, but didnít receive it, then you have an emotional wound you need to heal.


To be fair to your mother, itís possible that sheís doing the same thing to your sister--bragging about your accomplishments and those of your children and grandchildren.  Some parents are unable to praise their adult children to their faces, but tell others about their pride in their offspring.  Many times Iíve heard a client tell me that theyíd heard from someone else that their parent had said something positive about them.  The client is surprised to learn the parent feels that way, yet is also frustrated that the parent canít directly say the compliment. 


However, there are also manipulative parents who switch their praise on and off, depending upon which child is currently basking in their approval.  The other siblings feel resentful, and all the adult children know they canít trust the parent because the next month, someone else might be the ďgoodĒ one.  This emotional damage might cause them to struggle for their parentís fickle approval.  Or they can rebel against the parent.  Also, this kind of negative parental behavior can lead to sibling rivalry that lasts for a lifetime, instead of being outgrown at the end of childhood.


As a parent, itís important to love our children and treat them equally.  That doesnít mean we canít love them differently.  Each child is an individual, and our feelings for them are unique.  Perhaps balance is a better word than equal.  We need to balance our compliments, time, attention, and gifts so a child isnít favored over the others.  Of course, a birthday, illness, or special event means one child receives more attention, but thatís only for a certain amount of time.


However, a person might have a child whoís extra special to her in some way.  For example, a mother might have one daughter and several sons, and love the ďgirl timeĒ she spends with her daughter.  But itís just as important that she spend quality time with each of her sons.  Or a parent might have a ďgolden childĒ whoís beautiful and gifted and easy to be proud of.  But that parent needs to make sure she doesnít raise her other children in the golden oneís shadow.  This can lead to a life-long lack of self-esteem as well as hostility between siblings.  Or perhaps you have a child who struggles in some way, so he or she needs more of your attention.  Even with a special-needs child, the other siblings need special time with the parent.


I donít know why you dislike your sister, but Iím sure your motherís attitude has much to do with it.  Even the best sisterly relationship would be strained by this type of parenting.  If youíre a spiritual person, pray for healing for the relationship with your sister.  If you feel too resentful to take this suggestion, try praying for the willingness to pray for healing the relationship.  Sometimes becoming willing to forgive and move on is an even greater miracle than the actual healing of the relationship.


I believe your own lack of self-esteem and belief that you havenít accomplished anything adds to the problem.  You are a mother and grandmother.  That alone is a great achievement--perhaps the most important one of all.  Do some soul searching about your life, what youíve done.  Set some future goals for yourself.  Ask yourself, ďWhen Iím eighty-five years old and am looking back on my life, what kind of memories do I want to have?  What do I want to feel good about?Ē  Then start taking some steps toward achieving your goals.


You donít mention whether youíve spoken to your mother about your feelings.  Even if you have, itís time for another talk.  First you need to tell your mom how much her favoritism hurts you.  Also, say it adds to your resentment of your sister and strains your relationship with her.  Make sure you convey your thoughts and feelings in a calm, rational way.  It wonít help for you to be angry, blaming, or dramatic.  Use specifics about what your mom says or does that shows favoritism.


In an ideal world, your mom will apologize, tell you she loves you, let you know sheís proud of you, and in the future be very careful about talking about your sister or her family with you.  If your mother doesnít react in this wonderful way, and instead becomes critical of you, youíll need to set boundaries for what you want.


I suggest asking your mom to refrain from mentioning your sibling or her offspring unless you ask her questions.  When she starts to mention your sister, politely remind her the topic is off-limits.  If she persists, disengage from the conversation by calmly reminding her of the boundary then leaving the room.


While youíre out of the room, take time to process any feelings you have before you return.  Itís important to stay calm.  Select a new topic of conversation, even if itís only the weather, to begin when you return to your motherís presence.  If she brings up your sister, set your boundary again and leave the room.  The exception is if your mother wants to talk about the situation and your feelings instead of brag about your sister.


Continue enforcing your boundaries.  Be consistent.  It might take time, but eventually, your mom will get the picture. 


Best of luck,


Dr. Debra


Feel free to write me with your questions

Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in relationships and communication techniques.

To read previous 'Ask Dr. Debra' articles, please visit www.wetnoodleposse.com, where Dr. Debra is a regular contributor, or click here to view the archives.





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