Auntie SparkNotes: I Don't Want To Leave My Sisters With My Abusive Stepfather
I'm in need of some help. I'm a college freshman, and I'm moving out in a couple of weeks. I'm very excited about the whole experience, but I'm also worried. It's not me I'm worried about, it's my two younger sisters. I've always been more of a "mom" to my sisters than our own mother has, looking out for them and whatnot. And now that I'm moving 5 hours away from them, I guess I wonder how they're going to do without me. My stepdad can sometimes be verbally/emotionally abusive (I don't think this could ever escalate into violence though), especially more so with them than me. This doesn't happen all the time, but on the occasions that it does, I get anxiety attacks and sometimes break down crying in private. So in a sense, I'm worried because I won't be able to "protect" them from his yelling/bad influences/etc, and I don't want them to feel like I abandoned them.
So what should I do? I'm too scared to even mention this to my stepdad. I really don't feel comfortable talking with my mother about this, especially given our not-so-close relationship and her staunch loyalty to my stepdad (even when the yelling is directed at her). I can't look out for them like I could if I was living there. Am I worrying too much? Should I just trust that they're going to end up alright like I feel I did (relatively speaking)? Do I need to stop being their mother?
Ugh, you guys. Is it heartbreaking in here, or is it just me?
And I'll be honest with you, Sparkler: there's a lot about your situation that's really awful, and that there's no real solution for. Bad is your stepfather being verbally and emotionally abusive. Worse is your mother, who married a verbally and emotionally abusive man, and her relationship with whom she values more than the well-being of her children. And worst is the fact that these things, offensive as they are, are not actually crimes; they're just tragedies. You're right to worry about how your sisters will fare in a home with two incredibly crappy parents. You're also right to accept that you can't be there to shield them from your stepfather at all times or in all things. And the hope for them is the same one that you had yourself: to hang in there, and then get out of there.
But that's the good news: you have already proved, to yourself and to them, that getting out is possible. You made it. You're going to college. You haven't been broken by your less-than-ideal upbringing. And one of the reasons you're alright, as you put it, is that you had the wherewithal to understand that your stepfather is a jerk—and that the way he treats you says nothing about your worth as a human being, and everything about what sort of person he is.
And that's the gift you can give to your sisters, so that they can protect themselves from harm when you're not there to do it yourself. Tell them that your stepfather's behavior is wrong, and that they don't deserve it. Tell them that there's nothing wrong with them, and that they shouldn't blame themselves. Tell them that they aren't required to love, respect, or seek the approval of a person who mistreats them. Tell them that their only job, unfair and difficult as it may be, is to make it through the next few years and then hightail it out of there—just like you did.
Which they'll know they can, because you did it. And you'll know they can, because when things seem bleak or confusing or too hard, they'll have a caring older sister who can advise them, support them, and help them through. You don't have to be at home; you just need to be there, whether it's via email or Facebook or a bi-weekly phone call to check that everything's okay.
And hopefully, that's all you'll ever need to do.
HOWEVER: That isn't all you should be prepared to do. Even if you're right about your stepdad's nature — that he's just a garden-variety jerk, not a violent one — the possibility that you aren't right is still something to be acknowledged and planned for. Or in other words: your sisters should know that they can tell you if your stepfather ever becomes physically abusive with them, and you should know who you would call if you ever suspect as much. Figure out now who you might be able to turn to for support, be it a family friend, an aunt or uncle, a trusted teacher, or somebody else. Know the numbers of the national Childhelp hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD, if you need to ask questions anonymously) and your local Child Protective Services division (if you want to report abuse).
And while you don't have to have a dialogue with your mother, I hope you'll talk to her just once, just long enough to deliver a message: that if you ever have reason to believe that your sisters are in harm's way, you're not going to stand by silently.
Got something to add? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at email@example.com.
Want more info about how this column works? Check out the Auntie SparkNotes FAQ.