Dear Dr. Yael:
While my five siblings and I, a teenaged girl, get along well, my older teenage sister has a very strong personality. My mother, fearful that she will get angry, always tells me to give in to her during a dispute. I follow my mother’s wish, but don’t think it’s fair.
What bothers me most about this is that my mother was the younger daughter in her family and always had to give in to her older sister. That is why I am not sure why she insists I do it. Sometimes she tells me how upsetting it was for her to always have to give in, don’t you think that would make her more understanding of my plight?
Dear Frustrated Teenager:
There are a few psychological concepts that may be occurring in this situation. One is called repetition compulsion, whereby the person has a need to recreate a situation in her or his control that is similar to a situation that she or he experienced in their childhood. So let’s assume that your mother felt out of control and upset when she had to give in to her older sister. That may mean that she subconsciously has a need to recreate that situation now that she is in control. Therefore she reenacts the situation with you playing her former role, and asks you to give in to your sister.
Your mother may also be repeating her parents’ mistakes, something that unfortunately, many of us do when parenting our children. Adults know how often they say or do something that they promised themselves they would never say or do to their children, remembering how they suffered so much from the same behavior by their own parents. But when under stress, some parents suddenly say or do the same destructive thing that they vowed never to do. Your mother may be experiencing this as well.
Another psychological concept that this situation brings to mind is called transference, and although in strictly Freudian thinking it is the feelings we transfer from our parents onto other situations, your mother may be transferring her feelings of anger toward her parents by doing to you what they did to her. Transference is not something that is done on a conscious level; thus your mother would have no idea that this is what she is doing. Rather, your mother’s subconscious (the part of the mind that is below the level of conscious perception, namely activities of the mind of which we are not aware) may be directing her to act in this way. Once she is made aware of what she is doing, she may be able to realize that her anger could be playing a part in why she is allowing your sister to always have her way.
On a less substantive note, your mother may be so overwhelmed that it is simply easier to ask you to give in to your sister since she cannot deal with your sister’s wrath. It may be a coping mechanism for her since you are easygoing.
As far as you’re concerned, you need to discuss this issue with your mother in private when she is calm. Your mother is not doing your sister a favor, since your sister is not learning the art of giving in and being flexible in a relationship. In addition, your mother is building anger in your heart toward both your sister and her. While understanding the situation will hopefully make it easier for you to handle it, it is important to speak with your mother –respectfully – about what is bothering you. It is very possible that your mother may not even be aware of how this whole situation is negatively affecting you, causing you much private hurt.
Calmly explain to your mother that although you are sure that she doesn’t realize that you are in pain, you feel bad when she asks you to give in to your sister almost every time there is a disagreement. Describe your frustration level and tell her that although you are happy to sometimes give in, you feel that it would be fairer if your sister also gave in at times. This would be a fair compromise that everyone can live with.