How to let go of caring for a sibling

musicgirl asks: My mom got diagnosed with cancer all the way back in 2006. I was 13 back then, and my sister was 12. Since her diagnosis I’ve taken care of a lot of the responsibilities that would normally be my mom’s, but she couldn’t do, especially taking care of my sister. Everything in our world changed within days. I went from being a 13-year-old to a responsible older sister. I had to learn how to take care of my sister and do house chores and everything while my parents worried about my mom and her health. Since we were young, my parents didn’t tell us everything, we just knew the generals, like when she was having surgery or chemo or whatever… To be honest, I was scared and I didn’t want to know more. We kept growing up and I kept taking care of my sister, and became more of a mother figure when necessary. I attended the parent/teacher conferences and all the meetings from her sports team, and I took her wherever she needed. Now I’m almost 20 and she’s 18. She goes to college now, and she’s grown more independent, but I keep trying to make sure she’s okay and stuff… how can I stop feeling so responsible for her?

Hi musicgirl –

Okay, before I say anything else, may I please bow down to you, in humble awe at what you’ve done.  Diseases are unfair anyway, but this one has not only robbed your mother of the life she planned, but took lots of your time as a teenager too.  I respect your responsibility, your honor, and your deep care for your sister enormously.

But your question points out a problem: you got so good at being such a great caretaker that you don’t know how to stop!

The funny thing, musicgirl, is that you’re going through what most parents do at this stage.  Their kids have left home, and are doing a reasonably good job of beginning their adult lives, and want their parents to give them respect and space (along with some support), but the parents, who’ve lived two decades worrying about everything from their kid crawling into a staircase, to walking into a street, to driving into a cop car… simply don’t know how to think or live any other way!

So here’s the fact, musicgirl.  You can’t stop feeling this way.  Fifty years from now, you’ll still look on your sister as your responsibility.  But there are two things you can do, and you should start trying to do them as soon as you can:

First, you were great at helping her with what she needed when she was eleven.  Well now, what she really needs is to learn to live on her own.  So make that your responsibility.  Help her to make her own decisions, help her choose good subjects in school and choose a good career, help her by being there for her when she makes mistakes and feels terrible, and help her by cheering her on when she has successes and feels great.  She still needs you, but she needs you in different ways.  And if you’re checking up on her every day to see if she has a cold or a skinned knee… that’s not what she needs at all!

And second, it’s time for you to live your own life, in a way you haven’t been able to for nearly a decade.  You’re like a soldier home from years of war, who finally has the right to put the gun away and stop following orders, but can’t remember how to live that way.  Without forgetting about your sister, it’s time to turn your focus to other things.  What do you want?  (I’ll bet you have a lot of trouble even figuring out how to want things for yourself, after all that responsibility!)  What are fun things you could do?  What sort of friends would you like to get more of, because you have more time for them now?  Would you like to be dating?  Would you like to travel?  Would you like to go out and be totally ridiculous and dance in the streets and howl like a hyena wearing a big hat made of fruit?!!!  BECAUSE NOW YOU CAN!!!

Again, musicgirl, I want to emphasize how much I respect and love what you’ve done.  I can’t even imagine how proud your mother and father must be.  But now it’s Your Time.  Stay the great person you’ve been, but start to treat yourself with the care and love that you’ve given your sister.

It’s your life, musicgirl.  And it begins right……………….  NOW!


Enjoy it.  You’ve sure earned it.



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