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Advice: My sister is messing up my relationship with my parents

When it’s time to seek help in dealing with a complicated family dynamic.

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My older sister, who has battled drugs and alcohol her entire adult life, moved in with our father and within months, she had been “given” his house, art, and money. Our parents are divorced and when I brought this up to my mother she immediately became defensive, dismissive, and accusatory — because the move turned out to have been her idea in the first place. I’m 50, with a great family and steady job, but my mom has left us feeling exhausted, betrayed, and frustrated. I’ve decided to take a break from her, but I recognize the importance of maintaining healthy family relationships for my kids. What should I do?


Anonymous / Brookline

Success in life should be measured not by where you are but by how far you’ve come, and people who construct orderly, meaningful lives for themselves after growing up in dysfunctional households are shining stars in my personal admiration constellation.

And you’ve got a little further to go.

It’s fantastic that you’re asserting boundaries with your mother and honoring your own needs. Not everyone manages to get to that place. Now, go a bit further, because here’s the hard, hard thing: It is important to maintain healthy family relationships for kids, but you can only maintain such relationships — you can’t conjure them. You don’t seem to have a healthy family of origin; you have a family that organized itself around the chaos of your sister’s addiction. The question of how your children should relate to their grandparents isn’t a logistical/engineering problem to be solved with nifty workarounds. It’s not even a problem, because you can’t solve it. It’s a predicament.

But you’re not alone in that predicament. There are resources to help you understand your family dynamics better, and there is support to help process what you learn. Look into Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families (helpful material even if your parents themselves aren’t addicts). Google “parents enable addict sibling” and see what resources you find. You’ll see a lot of strangers telling your story, for one thing, because the same roles and relationships consistently emerge in the families of addicts. Thinking of your family this way might be new territory for you, but it’s not unmapped.


And talk to your kids about what addiction is, and how it’s affected your family. Depending on their ages, maybe it’s “Auntie is very sick,” or maybe it’s the neurobiology of addiction and potential genetic risks. Maybe you learn more about addiction and family systems together, you and your kids. But they have to know. Secrecy is never, never ever, the way to handle addiction in a family. Kids pick up on more information and vibes than we give them credit for — and have less context for what they learn than we realize, often. Help them understand what they already know or feel, deep down.

And try not to see all these recommendations as another Everest to scale, achievement to unlock, broken engine to repair. They’re permission to stop fixing, to stop managing things you can’t control.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.