Dear Family Advisor

My sister is ruining her kids' childhoods by expecting them to care for our sick mom

Last updated: Feb 23, 2009

My sister is caring for our mom full-time, and I think she has her kids doing too much of the work. Mom has a lung condition and diabetes and can no longer walk. I'm afraid the kids will become depressed or angry -- the oldest looks exhausted all the time. My sister won't let her get a part-time job or learn to drive, saying that family comes first.

I help out some, but it feels like my sister's pushing me out. How do I convince her that my nieces and nephews deserve a well-rounded childhood?

You're right, there's a limit to how involved a child should be when it comes to caregiving. Your sister believes she's doing the right thing and teaching her children responsibility, respect for elders, and how to function as a team. And that's true, to some extent, but there can be too much of a good thing.

To begin with, sit down with her and share your heart. Tell her you love her, your nieces and nephews -- and your mom. Tell her you'd like to be more a part of your mom's life. Try not to sound judgmental or she'll just shut down -- it's best to start out in a tone of kindness and respect. (Remember that you'll probably need to talk about this more than just once.)

Try to find out why your sister has pushed you away. Is it because she doesn't like certain things you do or say? Is it because she feels she can guide her children more easily? Listen to her reasons.

Then tell her that you strongly feel that the children are taking on more than they should -- and that it's not emotionally healthy for them. Explain that psychologists say that kids in this situation can become depressed and anxious or act older than they are.

Despite your efforts, your sister might not change, at least not right away. But hopefully, she'll let you take your nieces and nephews out of the house for some fun, like rollerblading in the park or pizza and videos.

Also, don't just offer to help -- help! See what needs to be done and do it. Pick up groceries, do some laundry. Be a little pushy. You shouldn't have to walk on eggshells with your sister. So maybe you'll have a sisterly spat: You -- and she -- will get over it.