How to Handle an Explosive Sister

Reader’s Question

My sister just turned 40 and has a problem with her temper. If people in our family (our siblings, her children, her husband, our parents, etc.) stand up for ourselves she blows up. A normal blow-up usually consists of her yelling and storming out or hanging up the phone. She is immature and is very controlling through this behavior. Our parents have always made excuses for her. I think they worry about her emotional stability and choose to pacify her instead of stand up to her. She blew up at my Dad (he is very much like her) a couple of months ago and our mother made him apologize. He wasn’t completely to blame but he took the entire blame for the situation.

To make a long story short, she blew up at me this morning. It was over something very ignorant but I stood my ground and didn’t feed into her emotional control. That made her angry and she screamed and hung up on me. My children could hear her screaming from 2 rooms away and we were on the phone. I am 41 and I feel like a child around her. She is so belittling. I called and left a message for her (she won’t take my calls) and told her that I would no longer have anything to do with her until she apologizes. I told her that I did not deserve to be treated that way and that my children wonder if she has lost her mind because they heard her screaming. Is that the proper way to handle someone who is so dysfunctional? I cannot tiptoe around her anymore but my Dad has already said that our Mom doesn’t need this right now. Our Mom is medically unwell. They just want me to deal with her and not rock the boat. I am sick of being the peace keeper and I feel that I am just condoning the behavior if I don’t make this stand.

I appreciate any insight you can give me on this matter. Thanks.

Psychologist’s Reply

Your sister is most likely an emotional and verbal bully. Individuals who operate like this place their own immature demands above everyone else and when they don’t get their way through various manipulations, they use verbal and emotional abuse to intimidate, bully, and control others. From your description, she may have modeled the behavior from your father but then added her own special touches. As the family has discovered, her selfishness and immaturity are so intense that she has little or no respect for those around her. Some strategies to deal with this type of behavior:

Don’t take it personally.
This is her strategy for getting her demands. Small children aren’t verbally skilled so they use a temper tantrum. She uses it because it works! Not only does it assure her of getting her way, but it keeps people at a distance when they have demands of her. These “Queens of Drama” make sure that anyone who disagrees with them…or requires anything of them…pays the price. As a result, the family is always “walking on eggshells” around them and treating them special…like a Queen deserves! Her approach is not directed at you and she is not belittling you — she belittles everyone as a behavior.
Don’t tolerate the behavior.
When she begins her tantrums, say something like “We’re getting to the yelling and screaming part of the discussion, so nothing else needs to be said.” Say goodbye and hang up. If it happens in a room…just walk out. Your behavior will send a signal to her that the only way to talk to you is with a civil tongue and with respect. Keep in mind: you are not morally or ethically obligated to listen to her opinion or tantrum. You are required to hang up, just as though you were getting an inappropriate phone call. Assure family members that they also have the option of not tolerating the behavior.
Don’t ask for an apology.
She exhibits a tremendous sense of entitlement and feels totally justified in her tantrums. Asking for an apology only plays into her games as she can then whine to other family members that you are treating her badly. She will then enlist the support of your mother, father, siblings, pastor, employer, etc. to put pressure on you to forgive her. Remember that Queens of Drama must always be the center of attention. She will use your demands as a reason for additional attention. Your strategy should be similar to handling a four-year-old child’s temper tantrum: you don’t meet their demands, don’t discuss your reasoning, make your position firm, and don’t modify your position or apologize for being a responsible adult.
Push her out to an emotionally safe distance.
Selfish and immature individuals have no concern how they emotionally upset and even damage those around them. You can’t afford that. Don’t call frequently and when she calls, drop your level of conversation to the “grocery store talk” — “Well, spring is on the way” or small-talk. Nothing personal — just information you would tell someone at the grocery store.
Don’t be concerned that she is upset.
In truth, she lives this way. Allow her to be angry with you and pout. Allow her to not call for weeks…she actually feels entitled to punish you by pouting for disagreeing with her. It’s called “logical consequences”, allowing her to experience the misery of her behavior without someone trying to apologize and fix it for her. If someone refuses to take an umbrella with them — allowing them to get soaking wet makes them think twice the next time.

Your sister will notice that her normal controlling strategy (temper tantrums, yelling, belittling, etc.) no longer works. She will then be forced to change her behavior to keep you as a member of the Queen’s Court. Accept only behaviors and approaches that are emotionally and socially healthy. Remember that she needs people to pay attention to her more than you need someone yelling and screaming at you.

As time passes, even if she settles down, keep the same strategy. If she flares up and starts to bully again, remind her that you will not tolerate being abused, then keep your distance.

People work successfully with violent, bullying, screaming, belittling, and immature folks everyday. If we work with the general public, we meet them. Use that same strategy of remaining professional, emotionally detached, and recognizing that the problem rests with her, not you or your family. Your obligation is to protect yourself and your family from her abusive behavior.

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