Search Menu

Auntie SparkNotes: How Can I Deal With My Dysfunctional Family?

Auntie SparkNotes: How Can I Deal With My Dysfunctional Family?

Dear Auntie,
My mom is not exactly your typical minivan-driving soccer mom. She has a long history of needing men to feel good about herself, unmedicated mental illness, and excruciatingly low self esteem. Her last husband, my first stepdad, was a racist, emotionally abusive alcoholic with four kids who picked on me for the four years I lived with them. My current stepdad is her fourth husband; the only reason they got married, as she's told me a few times, is that she got pregnant with my baby sister, who was born a few months ago.

I still go to school with Ex-Stepdad's two youngest kids, and it is ridiculously, horribly awkward. They try to talk to me like nothing ever happened, and I have the feeling that they're circulating rumors about my family, considering some things I've heard around school. I just want a drama-free senior year without people watching me like I'm some sort of freak.

I recently lost a really good friend after he called my mother a slut, and mocked me because my baby sister doesn't have the same father as I do. I don't speak to him anymore, but my younger sister, a freshman, is still really good friends with him. I know this is between me and him, but I showed her the texts he sent me saying all this, and she says she doesn't care, and that it's true anyway. I can't understand why she isn't angry, like I am. This is family. If we don't defend them, who will? I know I can't change her mind, but how do I stop wanting to?

Auntie, I love my mother, I really do, but as you might've guessed from my letter, I have a hard time living with her. Every time she yells at me for not doing the dishes, every time she tells me I don't do enough around the house because SHE HAS TO TAKE CARE OF A BABY FOR GOODNESS SAKE it just makes me want to scream. I do a lot, and the last thing I can stand after coming home from a four hour marching band rehearsal or yet another day skipping lunch to do college applications is that I don't do enough. Like with my sister, I can't make her change, so how do I deal with it personally? I just want to get through the day a little better, and it feels like I have nowhere else to go.

Oh, but you do, sweet pea—and you're almost there. You're so, so close. The only thing holding you back from a better place is that last, stubborn shred of hope that your family will ever be anything other than the dysfunctional mess that it is.

You've gotta let go of that, Sparkler. Which sounds incredibly dark and awful, I know. But sometimes, and this is one of those times, hope is a useless, poisonous thing that'll only hold you back. The more you allow yourself to hope that your mother could change, the more she'll disappoint you over and over again when she stays exactly who she is. And the more you go to battle for her, the more it'll sting when you drag yourself home and she doesn't even notice your wounds.

Case in point: the guy who called your mother a slut should be shunned, yes, but not because he insulted her. It's the wrong he did to you—taking a cheap shot at you, acting like your mom's issues reflect poorly on you—that makes him such an enormous jerk. And cutting ties with a person who treats you like that is a good, worthwhile expense of energy. But defending the person he used as ammo? Not so much, and especially not when that person is selfish and damaged and not only doesn't deserve your loyalty, but wouldn't even appreciate it. You ask who will defend your family if you don't; I'd ask you, why does anyone need to? Is a defense something that a person is entitled to, no matter how terribly they've treated their would-be defenders? Does shared genetic material come with some sort of obligation? And is there anything to be accomplished by getting angry on your mother's behalf? Does it change anything for the better? Does it make you even the tiniest bit happier?

Which brings me to this: when you ask why your sister isn't angry, I suspect that it's because she's thought her way through the questions above and realized that the answer to every one is no. She's done the thing you haven't: she's stopped pretending or hoping that your family is any way but the way that it is. She's accepted that your mom has issues, that people will talk about it, and that this is your mom's problem, not hers. She's made a choice to save her energy for the relationships that add value to her life. And while her continued friendship with the jerk who hurt you is an awful slap in the face, her decision to face the truth is one I hope you'll think about making, too.

Because that's the place you want to get to. That's where you'll find peace: in understanding that your mother is an unhealthy, unhappy person; in knowing that unhealthy, unhappy people will take their misery out on the people around them; in expecting that what your mother does is what she'll continue to do. Your mother is who she is. Your family is what it is. The way your mom deals (or doesn't) with her issues is as inevitable and impersonal as the weather—and if you knew it was going to rain every day, you wouldn't waste your time feeling angry and sad about it, would you? You'd just carry an umbrella and avoid wearing your good shoes, until you could move somewhere sunnier.

This is my advice to you: stop shaking your fist at the sky, and start looking for ways to shield yourself from the deluge. Spend as little time at home as you can, knowing that it will never be a pleasant place to be. Accept that people talk, and people stare, and that getting defensive only ever makes people talk and stare more. Disentangle yourself from your mom, even if it's only in your own head, so that you don't have to take her lashing out so personally. Instead of hoping she'll get better, learn to expect her worst—and use the distance you've gained from the situation to note how her behavior follows patterns, how certain things trigger it, and much they have nothing to do with you. This is your armor. And if you put it on every day, then you can field whatever your mother throws at you until it's time to move out of the house.

And when you're not waging a battle with yourself to deny the dysfunction and turmoil you're living with, you'll be able to take that energy and put it into the things in your life that actually give something good back to you: the friends who love you, the passions that fulfill you, and hopefully, the professional therapist who you're going to start seeing as soon as you have the means.

Got something to say? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at
Want more info about how this column works? Check out the Auntie SparkNotes FAQ.

Topics: Advice
Tags: auntie sparknotes, siblings, families, mothers, sisters, stepfathers

Write your own comment!

About the Author

Kat Rosenfield is a writer, illustrator, advice columnist, YA author, and enthusiastic licker of that plastic liner that comes inside a box of Cheez-Its. She loves zombies and cats. She hates zombie cats. Follow her on Twitter or Tumblr @katrosenfield.

Wanna contact a writer or editor? Email