Question

Recently an extended family member reached out to me. She was feeling suicidal and asking for help to leave a bad family situation. She is a young adult still living in her parents’ home, and I supported the idea of her moving out and living on her own as a healthy thing for her age. This desire to support her increased when I learned that she is regularly called names, yelled at, and belittled for her mistakes and opinions. One of her parents refuses to allow opinions in the home that differ from their own, and a simple mistake can result in a terrifying barrage of put-downs and criticisms. When this adult child says something like, “What you did hurt my feelings,” there isn’t any real apology, only excuses like, “I didn’t really mean that”, “It wasn’t at all the way you’re thinking,” or “it was your fault I acted that way.” It’s a pattern I’ve seen for many years, but I didn’t realize the extent of it or how bad it has become.

I don’t know a great deal about narcissistic patterns, but from what others have told me, this parent seems to be exhibiting classic characteristics of this type of behavior. I would like to help this young family member get on her feet financially and emotionally. We are in a position to do it, but my husband feels we shouldn’t interfere. He worries about damaging the relationship with the parents and tells me I need to stop going behind her parents’ back. He thinks we should have a discussion with her parents. I would be happy to discuss it with them if I felt like that would be a useful conversation. But from past experiences, I am convinced that such a conversation wouldn’t work. I believe it will only backfire and make things much harder for this young relative. 

I know it could be a lot to take on if we try to help her, not only financially, but also as family support. There is a possibility that unless things improve with her family of origin, she will want to turn to us as surrogate parents. I don’t blame my husband for feeling hesitant about this huge task, especially when he could lose the friendship of this parent. However, when he says that we need to discuss the situation with her parents, and that we are misjudging them, I believe he isn’t understanding the situation. I know it isn’t possible to diagnose someone with narcissism from a vague scenario, but I’m hoping you can help my husband and I accurately understand narcissistic behavior and if there are cases where emotional abuse might not be apparent to those outside the immediate family. This is particularly important considering the mental health risk to this young adult relative. 

Right now, my spouse and I see the basic facts of the situation in very different ways. I feel we need to be able to see things more accurately and consistently before we can decide how to proceed. We are planning to talk to a therapist about this when we have an opportunity, but in the meantime, he is frustrated with me, saying I’m interfering and taking on too much to support her. I am similarly frustrated with him for not being willing to see the seriousness of this situation. Thank you for your listening ear.

Answer

It’s difficult to see someone you love living in an unhealthy situation and not knowing how to properly respond to their plight. I see that you don’t want to make things worse for her, which is definitely a thoughtful strategy. At the same time, you see real danger, especially when she tells you directly that she’s suicidal and asks for help. You’re in a tricky situation, for sure, but it’s still important to respond.

First of all, I recognize your question is focused on helping her leave her home so she can be in a healthier environment. However, when someone shares that they’re suicidal, you’ve got to act quickly and make sure they’re safe. This may step on a few toes and create some unexpected challenges for her with her family, but these struggles can’t compare to the devastating tragedy of losing a loved one to suicide. If you can’t be the one to personally get her to safety, then it’s important that you tell her parents so they can help get her to safety. She’ll need to either be hospitalized or immediately work closely with a mental health professional. At a minimum, she shouldn’t be left alone under these conditions. If they minimize it and brush it off, then you and your husband need to become more directive and involved to make sure she’s safe.

Don’t be afraid to ask her questions to make sure she’s not in immediate danger. Most loved ones are afraid to ask questions for fear of pushing the person toward suicide. In reality, they’re less likely to follow through if they know someone is there for them and cares. It can help them to talk through what they’re feeling and experiencing. For example, you can ask questions like:

  • How are you coping with what’s been happening in your life?
  • Do you ever feel like just giving up?
  • Are you thinking about dying?
  • Are you thinking about suicide?
  • Have you thought about how or when you’d do it?
  • Do you have access to weapons or things that you can use to harm yourself?[i]
  • You can encourage her to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to immediately get support from a trained responder.

Now, let’s talk about how manage your involvement in her home life. You and your husband both sound like thoughtful and considerate people. It’s no wonder she’s reached out to you for support. I do think it’s a wise idea to work closely with a local therapist to help you and your husband get on the same page before deciding if and how to approach her parents. If there are emotionally abusive patterns in her home, talking with them will require some preparation and strategy. Part of that strategy will be ensuring that you and your husband are united on your approach. Talking with her parents will only create more chaos in her life if you and your husband are split on your approach. If she’s currently safe and not at risk of harming herself, take the time you need to get aligned with each other so you can be better equipped to propose a plan to get her the help she needs.

Emotional abuse is often ignored and overlooked, especially in families. It’s true that we all make mistakes and say or do things that insult and injure our family members. These experiences most certainly need to be interrupted and repaired if we are to have harmony and safety in our families. However, when there are ongoing and persistent patterns that continue to diminish the humanity and dignity of others, it’s important to courageously stand up to the abuser and set appropriate boundaries. Here are just a few ways emotional abuse shows up in relationships:

  • Name calling (even derogatory “pet names” or “nicknames”)
  • Yelling and aggression that leaves you feeling small and insignificant
  • Dismissiveness when you share things that matter to you. This can include eye-rolling, smirking, or mocking.
  • Threats about what they’ll do to you or your property
  • Lectures that leave you feeling beneath them
  • Outbursts and unpredictable reactivity
  • Building an army against you to get compliance (example: “everyone I’ve talked to agrees that you’re difficult”)
  • Gaslighting – denying something both of you know is true
  • Blame-shifting – making everything your fault and refusing to take any personal responsibility for hurtful actions.

Again, it’s important to recognize that any one of these behaviors in isolation doesn’t necessarily mean that the environment is abusive. It can be a lapse in judgement that can usually be repaired with some serious accountability. However, when these behaviors happen repeatedly at the expense of individual family members without any attempts at repair, it becomes a toxic and damaging environment.

Ideally, you would work closely with her parents on her behalf. I understand that if they’re going to deliver more abusive treatment when she’s in this vulnerable state, then it’s wise to develop a more careful strategy. I’d like to believe that if you get involved and invite her parents to help you advocate for her safety and health instead of criticizing their relationship with her, they’re more likely to be part of the solution. Again, I trust that with some help from a wise professional, you can weigh all of the factors and find the best way to offer her long-term support.

Not only will you need to get professional guidance to help you make a unified decision for your own family, but it will also be important for this niece to get some help to work through her mental health challenges. If she ends up in your home, she won’t automatically heal just by changing the environment. She needs to make sure she’s undoing the impact of her previous environment and learning how to cope in a peaceful home environment. Healthier living conditions will create a safe foundation to do this healing work, but she deserves to understand her own experience and work through any unresolved trauma. Plus, it will help her get clear on any boundaries she’ll need to set with her parents going forward.

I commend you for your willingness to be an advocate for her safety and mental health. Regardless of where she ends up, you can continue to be a lifelong support to her. She’ll need to know that someone sees and respects her. There are countless ways we can help those in distress. While her situation may call for a larger scale intervention, there is so much you can offer to her privately that can make a significant difference in her life. For example, listening nonjudgmentally is one of the greatest gifts we can offer a fellow human. Your kindness and interest in her situation is deeply moving and I trust you’ll find a solution that will work for your family and help her thrive.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples, pornography/sexual addiction, betrayal trauma, and infidelity. He is the founder of LifeStar of St. George, Utah (www.lifestarstgeorge.com) and Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com). Geoff is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, the host of the Illuminate podcast, and creates online relationship courses available at www.trustbuildingacademy.com. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
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[i] https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/suicide/in-depth/suicide/art-20044707