Niece Having Difficulty with My Sister

Reader’s Question

My niece is 17 and is having serious troubles with her mom (my sister). She is trying to be an adult and get adult questions answered but her mom always say “I know” or “I’m working on it”. My sister will often dodge the question or get mad. For example, my niece has been asking for months about getting car insurance and her mom says she is working on it but nothing comes to pass.

Also, my sister often comes over after work (her work is as a teacher), lays on the couch for hours, sleeping and then when my niece wants to go home, my sister says “I’m getting up” and won’t for hours. My niece gets frustrated, trys to move her, trys to yell and my sister will just lay there saying “leave me alone and I will get up”. Then she doesn’t move again for hours.

She also “uses” my niece. For example, they were over my house tonight and my sister yelled from the living room for my niece to come out. When she got there, my sister said “Get me a blanket”. Often she will call from another room and ask for “the TV to be louder” because she doesn’t want to get up to get the remote. If my niece says “Mom do it yourself” she will say “Well I guess you don’t want car insurance” or something threatening.

Also, when my niece does get her home, my sister will often give her a “to do” list (like you can’t go to bed before you pick up that paper, do the dishes, and other tasks). I have tried talking, my sister gives me a condescending smile and says “I know all this” and does nothing.

This is just a few examples of what my sister is doing. I get involved because my niece, as frustrated as she is, comes to me for advice/help. When I have gotten involved in the past, she just says “I know what is going on and you don’t have all the information”, or that she “is working on it”.

She also “promises” her daughter things (hey, let’s join a gym) and then when brought up she says she doesn’t have time or money. Yet, she often will buy unnecessary items for herself and doesn’t think twice about it.

In my own life, she isn’t respectful of time. I will say “Be at the house at 6 so we can go to dinner” and she’ll be there at 6:30 or 6:45. I started leaving her behind and going on to dinner without her. I talked to her and told her she was being disrespectful of my time and others and she says “Oh no, it’s no big deal”. When I did start to leave without her, she gets mad. She has kept family members and people waiting for hours. They turn to me and ask where she is and expect an answer. This happens every time we set a time. She never adheres to it, and feels it is not an issue.

She also strongly favors her son and he has moved away to school, glad he doesn’t have to be put into a “husband/parent” role since my sister’s divorce. But when he comes back, she puts him into that position again, and he gets just as frustrated as his sister.

I am at odds as to what to do or say. I have tried on dozens of occasions to say kindly how my niece feels, but she just says “Oh I know, you don’t know the whole story” or “She’s always like that”. She is extremely lazy, often sleeping 15 hours on Saturday and Sundays, but when she needs something, or a friend calls, she jumps and goes out with them at a hat’s notice. She also constantly complains about being hurt (my skins hurts, my neck hurts) yet she never exercises, is obese, and eats mostly carbs. Because she doesn’t have high blood pressure or cholesterol problems, she says she is fine.

Also, she uses “God” as a reason. “God told me such and such” or “I have strong discernment and such and such”. I have gotten to the point of utter frustration and disgust and am having an estranged relationship because she never changes anything when she says she will.

I’m worried more about my niece. It is affecting her health, sleep and now she is having severe back problems. I recommended to my niece she write her mother a note and tell her how she is feeling and ask to have therapy sessions with the two of them.

Can you offer me and my niece additional help and resources and perhaps an explanation of this behavior?

Psychologist’s Reply

My initial clinical reaction — your sister is depressed. Here’s my theory (psychologists have a lot of them!): Your sister hasn’t returned to “normal” since her divorce and the increasing responsibility of being a single parent to older children has gradually immobilized her. Excessive sleep, loss of motivation/interest, loss of self-respect, inability to organize her life/activities, somatic preoccupation/hypochondraisis, and a certain level of selfishness tells me that she has become self-absorbed. This is not an uncommon reaction to a divorce and is often a “second wave” of depression that surfaces after the initial distress of a divorce seems to have disappeared. Even the preference for carbs fits my theory — a common behavior in depression as the body is actually trying to manufacture more Serotonin (a neurotransmitter). You might want to read my article on Understanding Depression, review depression articles on this website, and view her behavior and attitude as a form of mental exhaustion.

Your sister, in my theory, needs mental health intervention. A good way to start is to focus on her somatic/physical complaints. Recommend that she seek medical consultation and volunteer to go with her. Focus on her symptoms of fatigue, excessive sleep, loss of interest/motivation, etc. The physician should pick up the depression quickly. I’d also recommend that the niece recognize that her mother is having a difficult time. At present, everyone around her is taking her behavior very personally — because it seems very personal. In reality, the symptoms of depression have robbed her of all self-respect which is why she doesn’t care if she offends someone or not. My depression theory will gain additional support if her current behavior or pre-divorce behavior is just the opposite. If this current behavior is “out of character” for your sister, then a severe, chronic depression is even more likely.

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