QUESTION: I have a sister in law who is an outgoing and loving person. She's the type who many of my sisters in law call when they need validation-- she really listens well. She also really listens to her kids (or so it seems!) many times and makes sure they get all the help they need. However, she has a serious anger issues. I'm older than her and it seems to be that I'm the only one that sees its detrimental effects on her children. She screams at them a lot-- even in public. She hits them very often-- even in front of the extended family and cousins. It really bothers me on two levels: one is that I notice her children get really scared when she starts her tirades. (Her husband, my brother in law, does little to stop her) It also bothers me that my children who grow up in an otherwise wholesome and calm environment have to see this sort of thing. Just this Shabbos we were at my in-laws and my sister in law popped by with her kids for dessert. The kids began playing when one hit his toddler brother pretty hard. She began screaming and screaming and hitting about 6 or 7 times. Then, the screaming continued with some name calling (you're such a mean kid!) thrown in for good measure. Nobody says anything but obviously it gets really uncomfortable for all. What do I do?
ANSWER: Although this scenario is far from funny, let me share you with a funny incident that happened as an outcome of your question. Before crafting my response, I threw out your question to a table at a simcha I attended just recently. At the table sat various people whom I have known for a long time, including old family friends. One older woman, known on the block for behavior that often humiliated her children, denounced your sister-in-law’s behavior to everyone sitting around the table, proclaiming to all who would listen how terrible for a mother to behave that way, and for her mother-in-law to watch this and not swoop in to save the children. Seriously, I wondered what this woman was thinking and if she remembered how her own children blushed with shame when she went on some tirade or another in front of the neighborhood kids.
But it made me think about your question in ways I had not previously.
First I am going to respond to your query as if you have not thought of these most obvious solutions on your own (which I am sure you have). Then I will go on to agree with you why you could not attempt any of these solutions that seem so helpful to anyone who is not a screeching mother who loses control of herself when stressed out. Lastly, I will help you formulate a plan to help your sister-in-law’s children, your own children, and maybe even your sister-in-law but more like a Ten Year Plan rather than an immediate relief to a difficult and painful situation.
So here’s the typical solution. Talk to your sister in law. Hahahahahahaha. Dumb idea, I know. But here is what I would ask you to ask yourself. Do I have a good relationship with her? Do we talk about personal topics? If the answer is yes to those two questions, then maybe it is possible to weave into your conversations how difficult it is to raise little children, and sympathize with her stress. Stretch yourself if possible and tell her how uncomfortable her screaming makes everyone. And when she comes with her children, assess the situation and give her a hand before chaos strikes. Hold her toddler in your lap to avoid those triggers that inevitably come. These are immediate solutions that may help.
But who are we kidding. You are never going to say or do those things. And for good reason. Your gut feeling is that it will only make things worse.
Speaking up whenever you see your sister in law behaving this way will give a message to her children that their mother’s behavior is not normal. It will make your sister in law think twice before letting loose in front of you.
But we know that what you may lose, though, is much more in the process. And I am not talking about merely making an enemy of your sister-in-law and causing friction within your family. I am talking about your sister in law taking revenge for her own humiliation at your words by intensifying her rages against her children when you disappear. It will mean that in her humiliation she will avoid being with you, with the family, for fear of being judged, and that would be a great disservice to the children. It is the balance of what is gained if her children learn that her behavior is not okay versus what they will lose if they will bear the brunt of her shame, or not stay part of the extended family.
And now my social worker pessimism is going to kick in. I am going to explain who your sister in law is, who your brother in law is and really what is happening here.
That great nature you describe your sister in law as having, together with the passivity of her husband watching his children being abused (yes, abused!) points to a high functioning person with borderline tendencies with the typically passive husband who goes along with it (because if not, he would have long ago divorced her and ran away to save his children). Because if this is what she does in public, her private persona is even more deadly. And high functioning people with borderline tendencies often are great people-persons, among them many teachers and therapists (scary, no?).
If your in-laws have any kind of relationship with their son, your brother-in-law, they should be enlisted in helping him get therapy to assert himself in the relationship on behalf of himself (I’m sure he is at the receiving end of this behavior as well), and his children. The earlier the better.
If there is no one to help in this situation, and nobody sees what you do, I would encourage you to enroll in a parenting class with her. If she is young and means no harm, this may give her the tools she needs to get herself together. And then when a family get-together rolls around, you are there to remind her of the stuff you both learned in parenting classes.
If none of this is possible, which may be the case, then let’s talk about the Ten Year Plan. While it would be nice to call Child Protective Services to swoop in and fix the lives of these children (I know I sound extreme, but when children are subtly treated with cruelty, and sometimes not-so-subtly, it is abuse, make no mistake about it), but not always effective or feasible.
The only way you may be able to protect these children is by providing for them a safe haven when away from their mother. A shabbos spent in your home with cousins. Your role modeling good parenting and relationships to your own children and to them as your nephews and nieces. Shmoozing with them subtly teaching them wrong and right ways of behaving. Perhaps getting in contact with the principals of their schools to give them a heads up, so that if her children are acting out in school, the school can take action to mandate therapy for their students.
If you develop a relationship with those children over time, you may be able to have open conversations about what is going on, and their choices of how to stand up to their mother.
In terms of your children witnessing this behavior, simply acknowledge what they are seeing and experiencing and validate that it is wrong. Tell them what you are doing to help your sister in law and children; enlist them in helping. Their protection is you. And you will model for them how to navigate their own future in-law relationships.
The key is to be honest with yourself with how much you can rock the boat without drowning everyone; if capsizing the boat may be a good option to save whoever is drowning anyway; how far you are willing to go at what risk to yourself; and what can be accomplished with improved and consistent relationships over the long term.
Good luck. With a sister in law like that, you will really need it. And don’t let anyone convince you otherwise
NOTE: THIS WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN BINAH MAGAZINE'S BIWEEKLY COLUMN: QUESTIONS YOU DIDN'T DARE ASK BUT ASKED ANYAY
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