Contempt Is Not A Family Value


The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 136 · Duration: 00:14:44

Contempt Is Not A Family Value

What do you do when two of your children have developed long term entrenched resentments towards each other, and don’t want you to take action?

Contempt Is Not A Family ValueToday we’re hearing from Jennifer, and she writes,

I am a long time listener of your podcast and a huge fan! I have a question for you: I am a single mother of four - the eldest is 20 and the youngest is 14. The eldest has suffered from anxiety through most of her teenage years, but especially after she had the traumatic experience of a brain tumor at age 11. The tumor was benign, surgery was successful and she has had no trace of disease ever since, but those few months had a real impact on her and she has had anxiety about illness ever since. In any case, either because of that or for some reason having to do with our family constellation, she has been quite mean to the youngest in the family (14) also female. I have tried over and over to intervene when she has been hard on the youngest but the youngest always pleads for me not to do or say anything as it "makes it worse". Now the youngest can't stand the oldest, dreads when she comes home from college, and has created a narrative wherein her older sister is the source of all her problems and they will never get along. Part of me thinks I should just step back and let them resolve their differences the way I did with my own siblings as we grew up and matured, but it bothers me that the two of them seemed locked in this battle of mutual mistrust and even contempt. Thank you Neil!

Thanks for your question Jennifer. I can see where it’s hard to know where to go with the situation yet I do think it calls for you to play a role and provide parental leadership. Obviously, you are and have been very concerned and yet feel disempowered, so I’m glad you’ve written in. Let’s see if I can give you some good empowering guidance.

Understanding The Issues At Hand

Here are some things that stand out to me as clues to what’s going on and where to go from here, 9 years after your eldest’s surgery. Your eldest never resolved the trauma of her brain tumor and surgery. One wonders why. Different kids respond differently to such things. Some with gratitude and a better understanding  of the value of life, some as with your daughter, anxiety and fear. It has to do with essential temperament, such as emotional sensitivity and emotional intensity. And how they are supported, through and after their ordeal. Regardless of her temperament, your daughter should have been able to come to terms with her medical situation, learn and grow from it, and move forward in a healthy way.

Her being anxious about her medical condition should not have been a reason to treat her younger sister badly. Whatever we feel, there is a healthy way to deal with it and a host of destructive ways to deal with it.

It's Time For Parental Intervention

Your younger daughter told you not to talk with her sister, her tormenter, because she feared that it would only make things worse. What that tells me is that she didn’t trust that you could effectively change her sister’s behavior and that she’d be in trouble with her sister for asking for help. She’d be tormented for that.

I’m not sure when the mean behavior towards your younger daughter started, but even when you knew and after trying, unfortunately unsuccessfully, to deal with it, you accepted your daughter’s statement not to deal with it further. Jennifer: parents listen, understand, empathize, and validate their children’s feelings, but they do not take orders from their children. Parents do what they know is right and if your older daughter is hurting a younger daughter, that’s a time for parental intervention. It could be a lot more complicated than poor child being hurt by older sister. Younger sister could have been aggressive and provocative to an anxious and sensitive older sister; I don’t know.

Parents listen, understand, empathize, and validate their children’s feelings, but they do not take orders from their children.Click To Tweet

Now your youngest blames her older sister as the cause of all of her problems. What problems is she having? Is her self-esteem compromised? Does she have unresolved trauma? Is she feeling essentially unsafe and distrustful in the world?

Also, I’m curious if your older daughter, at age 20, takes any responsibility for her behavior towards her younger sister; if she has any remorse and has apologized or is inclined to apologize. I’m not getting that feeling. It sounds like they are simply holding out in their respective camps or narratives; the stories they tell themselves, that my sister is a so and so and then use that as a justification for their own negative behavior.

Jennifer, the other important fact here is that you are a single mother of four. That’s huge and if you’ve been working and supporting your family, then being there to monitor behavior and relationships in addition to working and all the gazillion things it means to keep a home and spend time with your kids is going to be quite challenging. I’m sure having an 11 year old with a brain tumor was no picnic either.

Taking Next Steps

If your 14 year old is having problems, then she requires parental support / requirement that she deal with them. You didn’t mention if she is in therapy but if she isn’t and she has problems, regardless of who caused them, she needs support to resolve them and out grow them. It’s not going to be right for her to live her life as “Hi, I’m Jane and I was abused by my older sister and now I have life-long problems of feelings of inadequacy and distrust.” She needs to know that she is a whole person and even if she has a history that includes hurtful things, she can and will, heal, grow, and develop her wonderful amazing self.

Your child needs to know that they are a whole person, and even if they have a history that includes hurtful things, they can and will, heal, grow, and develop their wonderful, amazing self.Click To Tweet

So without being in a position to do an assessment and a treatment plan, here are some ideas for going forward.

You make it clear to both girls that the vitriol between them is a problem that needs to be dealt with. If amends are in order from daughter 1 to daughter 2, then that needs to take place. Amends are important for several reasons, it gives the offender the opportunity to take responsibility for their past offenses, and not carry the shame or guilt around. When we carry guilt, it can show up in many ways from defensiveness to unworthiness. Amends gives the receiver of the offense the opportunity to be validated and empathized with, and even if they aren’t receptive and forgiving, it helps and it takes some of the tension out of the relationship.
It may be appropriate for daughter 2 to make amends to daughter 1 for her behavior towards her as well.

You may want to make amends to both girls for not providing assertive enough parenting to help them both out. Now just asking them to make amends, when they’re as entrenched as they are, is going to get nothing but resistance. Step one would be for each of them to realize they have a role in the troubled relationship. Maybe that can be achieved talking with you and maybe they’ll need therapeutic support to get there.

Here are some suggestions for getting therapeutic support for dealing with this and you may want to talk with a therapist to decide the best strategy.

  • I strongly suggest that you go to counseling with your younger daughter to help her with whatever she is experiencing as her problems.
  • You can go to counseling with your older daughter too to help her have a more empathetic and kinder understanding of her sister. She may still have issues of her own and we don’t want her going through life with the narrative, “Hi, I’m Suzie and I had a medical scare as a pre-teen and I’m traumatized for life.” She is a whole person and needs to reclaim her wholeness.
  • Perhaps the three of you can see a really great therapist and work together to get through this, do the necessary healing, the amends making, and reconnecting in positive ways.
  • You have two other children between these two, and I’m not sure how they have been affected or affect all this. That’s something that you can explore with a therapist and perhaps they can be included.

The important thing here, Jennifer, is that something is going on in your family that you are rightfully concerned about; your two girls are acting in ways that violate your values and standards for the family. You get to deal with that, and say, “This isn’t acceptable and we are going to do something about it. We are going to keep dealing with it until it is resolved.”

So parents and folks working with parents, kids and families, in today's world of parents getting conflicting inputs from so many sources, parents need and deserve support for their leadership. They need to feel empowered to establish values and standards in their families and with love, positivity and support, and accountability to those standards.

Thanks for tuning in today everyone and special thanks to you Jennifer for being a fan and offering up a challenging situation and question.

If you are a therapist who works in a behavioral health treatment program and would like to talk with me about improving outcomes in your program, come on over to my website and shoot me an email or give me a call. I’ll be happy to talk with you.

Please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.

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