Relationship Connection: My sister is a danger to my family

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My husband and I have a rocky relationship with one of my sisters. Despite being in her 20s, she exhibits extremely volatile behavior, including lashing out physically and verbally when she doesn’t get her way and storming off when she is asked by my parents (who support her financially in every aspect) to do any chores.

Her behavior has been like this since she was a teenager. Her mood swings have led me to wonder if she has a mental illness, but she has so far refused to see anyone specializing in mental health.

As her sister, I’ve had to stand back and watch this for years, but this past Christmas, my husband and I saw her behavior reach an even more disturbing level. While on an outing with my side of the family, my mentally disabled brother became suddenly ill and threw up in public. While the rest of the family sought to help him, this sister in her 20s became uncontrollably livid, berating him repeatedly for becoming sick and screaming at him to stay away from her when we got in the car to go home. I received news that this sister tried to physically attack this younger brother “for getting her sick,” and my youngest sibling – a high school student – had to restrain her to prevent him from being harmed.

I’m at a loss of what to do. I have tried to speak to my parents about my concerns for her mental illness, but my mother dismisses her behavior as her being that of “an ornery teenager” (once again, she is in her 20s) who is physically ill, and she scolds me for “holding a grudge” against my sister.

Obviously, I don’t have any leverage in demanding that she get help, but if this is how she treats our mentally handicapped brother, I worry what will happen if she is ever alone with my children. But how do I make it clear to her and my parents that her behavior is a real concern? Do I wait until she lashes out at one of my children? Do I wait until someone ends up in the hospital from her abuse?

While I don’t want to cut out my side of the family – and I can’t avoid her because she usually stays with my parents – her increasingly hostile behavior makes me reluctant to continue to bring my family near her. I fear for my siblings still at home and I fear for my husband and children when we are with her, but I feel utterly powerless to do anything about it.


Your sister may indeed have a mental illness or some other emotional disorder. As important as it is to work on getting her professional help, there are more immediate safety concerns that cannot be ignored. Your parents aren’t protecting your mentally disabled brother from her violent verbal and physical threats.

You have done the right thing by addressing it with your parents. Unfortunately, they aren’t willing to face the reality that their own daughter is creating an increasingly unsafe environment in their own home. No one wants to call the authorities on their own family, but if this escalates to the point that your sister actually physically assaults your brother, then that will be the only option to ensure the safety of everyone in the home.

Right now, your parents are passing this off as drama from an immature child. However, it could very well escalate into a situation where your brother and younger siblings are actually physically harmed.

If she crosses the line and actually physically attacks others, she has to be held accountable. Abuse is something that cannot be tolerated in any form. Your parents and your sister have put you in a terrible position to have to address this issue. Your sister needs help, your siblings need protection, and your parents need to step into their role as protectors of their family. Nothing is going to improve without some intervention. There are a few ways you can do this.

You can sit down with your parents and let them know that if something like this escalates to violence, then you will be forced to call the authorities to protect your siblings. The message is simple: If they won’t protect the vulnerable people in the home, somebody else will. Obviously, this would be very disruptive to your family and they would need to understand how this would drastically change things in the family.

In situations like this where someone is clearly crossing social norms for acceptable behavior, you have to speak clearly and strongly about what you will and won’t accept. Your children can’t be put in a situation where she could verbally or physically harm them. Even though she might not take it well, you can also tell her directly that you are concerned about her outbursts and that you will be limiting or preventing contact with your children until she can guarantee that she will be appropriate around them.

Don’t be afraid to address this directly. She’s certainly not afraid of making inappropriate public displays. It’s no secret this is happening, so don’t dance around it. Your parents can be invited to your home. You can ask that she leave the home if you and your children visit. Speak clearly and you’ll come up with good options.

It’s a tragic and messy situation, but there is an opportunity for things to change if you are willing to speak truth and speak up for those who can’t protect themselves, including your siblings and your children. Hopefully your parents and your adult sister will hear you and respond to create safe conditions.

Stay connected!

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

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Twitter: @geoffsteurer

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  • Diana February 7, 2018 at 3:58 pm

    My sister was in the same situation, except that she was addicted to drugs and alcohol. Mix those together and she’s a time bomb. Ask your sister if she’s doing drugs like meth. If so, then she’s heading towards to self-destructive life. Tell her that you love her and you want her to get some help.

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