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Wednesday 19 June 2019

I'm very worried about how hostile my sister-in-law is to her daughter

Each week, adult and specialist adolescent psychotherapist Belinda Kelly answers your queries

'I am getting really concerned about my sister-in-law and her eldest daughter who is 12.' Stock image posed by models
'I am getting really concerned about my sister-in-law and her eldest daughter who is 12.' Stock image posed by models

Q. I am getting really concerned about my sister-in-law and her eldest daughter who is 12. She has three children and is separated. We all went away for a short break recently and I overheard her attacking her daughter just because she had said she missed her father during dinner. She was shouting at her 'Why can't you be more like your sister? I wish I never had you'.

Another time when her daughter spilled juice, she grabbed her arm, saying 'you idiot, what is wrong with you' and her face became really twisted and scary. She is so different with her other children. It saddens me to think what the child is living with when there are no other adults there. I spoke to my husband about this, but he just wants us to leave it. He says his sister is unbalanced and if we get involved it will only cause more harm than good. Her daughter seems so sad lately and has stopped going out with her friends to play.

A. Your dilemma is distressing to read. Children and young people in emotionally abusive environments are so vulnerable. The fact that your sister-in-law thinks it's acceptable to parent like this in front of relatives is of real concern. She may have a mental health issue that urgently needs treatment. Or she may be extremely unsupported and her rage is being projected onto her eldest child.

Whatever the reason your niece is living in a hostile environment. Hostile parenting is where a parent is "creating and maintaining the distress and danger in the adolescent's experience" (Bronagh Starrs). These children are disempowered, voiceless and often in despair. Instead of thinking 'why is my mum so mean?' they internalise all the shaming comments and think 'this is my fault. What's wrong with me?'

Just like a flower needs water and light to grow, children need safety and love to flourish. Because they cannot grow in a hostile environment, their development is stunted. When a child is constantly criticised they will naturally start to criticise themselves and expect others to criticise them too. This despair can cause depression, acting out, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

I know your husband doesn't want to intervene, but he could get other family members together. They could meet her and be gentle, but direct. They could say how they have witnessed how she talks to her daughter, give some examples so she hears it back. They can say that as a single parent she needs much more support, but her way of relating to her daughter will really damage her.

They can then offer her some choices for support to go to her GP for a referral to a psychologist or to see a recommended therapist. If she still refuses to see a problem, then I would approach her ex-husband with your concerns. He needs to step in now for the sake of his daughter. He could take her to a therapist where she can find support and reassurance that she is not the problem, where she can explore the impact of her life now with separated parents.

Q. My best friend killed himself some time ago. He had broken up with his girlfriend and was really angry. I was with him the day before he died and he seemed different. I asked him if he was OK and he just sighed and shook his head. I didn't know what to say to him.

I am not the same person since he's gone. I feel sick when I eat and I wake up in the middle of the night hearing his voice in my head. I can't stop replaying our last time together over and over. I wish I had hugged him or told him that he'd get through this. Or told his parents I was worried about him. I did nothing. While he was dying I was at the cinema eating popcorn. I sometimes think of not being here, and google different ways to die.

A. I am so grateful for your email. I imagine it's very hard for you to talk about your best friend's shocking death. And even harder to tell someone that you don't want to be here. You are waking up in the night and replaying your last goodbye with him because you are in a state of trauma. When we feel trauma, we can be distanced from ourselves and everything begins to feel unreal. You may be obsessing over your last goodbye because you feel so helpless and guilty that you couldn't stop him from ending his life.

You are not responsible for his suicide. Nobody is. You tried to help him when you saw he was struggling. You didn't know what to say to him because you are only 19 and you didn't realise how much he was suffering. Can you forgive yourself and accept that, at that time, given how little you knew, there was nothing you could do to help him?

Your pain has become too much for you to carry and you urgently need to talk to someone to help lighten the load for you. Can you text or call a friend or family member and let them know you are at risk of suicide? Let them help find you support with the overwhelming pain you are feeling.

You could phone Pieta on Freecall 1800 247 247 or simply text HELP to 51444. You don't want to die. You just want these agonising feelings to stop. Think about your friends and family. I cannot imagine how much suffering they will feel if you killed yourself. Finding someone who is experienced in letting you explore these suicidal thoughts will give you so much relief. So that you can begin to find a meaning and a purpose in your life again.

• If anyone is affected by any of the issues in this column please visit pieta.ie or samaritans.org

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