Q My sister, 45, has three daughters — 17, 16 and 6 — a sharp tongue and an ex-husband who has remarried and started a new family. He is barely involved with his girls, although he does send a child support check to my sister every month. ¶ The children’s basic needs are met and there is no physical or substance abuse in the home, but these girls have lived on the edge of an active volcano ever since their parents divorced five years ago. My sister’s temper has gone from sharp to nuclear. She uses tough (but acceptable) language when she talks to her daughters in public, but her outbursts at home are extraordinary. These eruptions occur every month or two and are directed only at her daughters. The girls still seethe with resentment, scream back in self-defense, slam doors and storm out of the house in tears. ¶ I’ve tried to talk to my sister about these angry explosions, but she clams up and says that she can’t help it. I know that she is strapped financially and that she is still furious because her husband left her, but I don’t think she should rest her rage on the skinny shoulders of her young girls, especially when there is no adult to intervene on their behalf. ¶ The two older daughters can’t wait to leave home, but they’re afraid that their little sister won’t be able to fend for herself. My heart breaks for her, too. And yet somehow these girls do well in school, have a lot of nice friends and don’t get into scrapes. ¶ I can’t help my sister much because I live 300 miles away, and I can’t give her much money because I have my own family to raise, but is there anything else that I can do for her and for my wounded nieces?
A You have a double problem: your sister and her girls — and the girls take precedence. The needs of children always come first.
If the family has a computer, you can Skype with the children every week, and write to them . Letters delight the young, especially when you tuck a cartoon in the envelope, so they’ll have something to laugh about, or a few dollars, so they’ll have a little walking-around money. And please, invite your nieces to visit you for a week, one child at a time, as long as they live at home. When these youngsters are with your family, they will be swapping their pain for a little peace and giving your sister a small respite, too .
You can also help your sister, and it shouldn’t cost much. She may ask you for money occasionally, but she needs your love a whole lot more. She needs to know that you care.
Treat her to an occasional manicure, just for fun, and call her often, just to let her vent. Don’t tell her what you think she should do, because she has probably had too much advice already.
That’s not all this family needs, however, for divorce can hurt more than death itself.
To help your sister and her children get through this dark passage, try calling government offices, United Way, churches and temples in their town to see whether they know of a grief or other counselor who conducts free (or almost free) meetings, for the ramifications of divorce can be toxic. If it arrests the children’s development, it could cause them to react to the stressors of life as if they were no older than they were when the divorce took place, and it could keep your sister as angry as she is right now—or even angrier. Behavior is often magnified as we get older.
You can also help your sister move on by sending her a copy of “ Divorce Hangover ” by Anne Newton Walther (Tapestries; $15). It won’t make her hangover go away, but it may help her treat her girls more kindly.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past Family Almanac columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Nov. 21.