At 18, my daughter, Kirstie, has told me that she never felt she had a proper childhood because we were too busy caring for her disabled sister, Polly. It's true, Polly took up a lot of our time and attention, but we always tried to show Kirstie that we loved her just as much. And anyway, what could we have done? Polly's health has deteriorated and she's now in a home, but Kirstie says it's too late to make it up to her, and we should have put Polly in a home long ago. We are devastated. What can we do?
Yours sincerely, Philippa
There is very little point in anyone complaining about something and then adding that there is nothing that can be done about it, as your daughter is doing. The whole point of complaining is to remedy a situation, after all. So you must question why it is that Kirstie suddenly needs to tell you all this. Perhaps airing her feelings makes her feel better? In which case, perhaps you should sit down with her and ask her to highlight examples and memories that have remained with her.
Perhaps she wants to make you feel awful. This is probably behind it all. I suspect that for some reason, Kirstie feels dreadful – there could be any reason, from boyfriend trouble, to not being able to get a job, to self-loathing – and wants to find someone to blame for it all. Who better than her parents?
Well, if punishing you is going to make her feel better, take the blame. Apologise for not doing enough to make her feel loved and say you wish you could put the clock back. Emphasise that her accusations make you feel awful, and pile on the agony of your "devastation", and make sure she knows her comments have really hit home. If she knows you're suffering, it will make her feel better. And perhaps, if she starts to feel guilty at the emotional destruction she's wreaked, she might have second thoughts about how valid her accusations really are.
What you must not do, at this stage, is justify your actions. This won't get any of you anywhere. Kirstie doesn't want to hear how you suffered and how difficult it was for you. She wants to blame you (a very common feeling among 18-year-olds) and she wants to take it out on you. For the moment, let her.
But don't let this behaviour go on for ever. I'd say six months of suffering is about enough. If she hasn't retracted or softened her accusations, then it would be no bad thing to get angry. Ask how on earth she thinks you should have coped in the circumstances. Ask how she would have felt if the situation had been reversed and she'd been the disabled one and Polly the normal one. Would she have wanted to be bunged into a home when she was small? Perhaps you kept Polly at home anyway because you thought this would help her future chances and that you had no idea that she would deteriorate.
Think of Kirstie as a small child who bites. It's no good just slapping her. First you must show how painful the bite is. Wince and cry. Make her realise her power. Later, you can admonish her for her actions. But until she can see how painful the results are, she won't see your angry reaction as justified. She'll just think, wrongly, that you don't understand.
I know how she feels
I too, at 18, felt resentment that my sister, who has learning difficulties, and my ADHD brother took more of my parents' time than I did. I felt forgotten about, left to my own devices and placed third. It seemed that nothing could grab their attention, not even being the first in the family to make it to university.
I am now 32 and living in the real world, which so obviously does not revolve around me. My parents did what they had to do. My sister has an independence that she would never have had had my parents not put so much effort and time in, and I can do nothing but praise them for it. My brother has done really well also.
We are all selfish at 18 and I think Kirstie will realise that as she matures. You have done what you had to do, and don't let anyone, even your daughter, tell you different.
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Get outside help
For now, you can't do anything. You have to listen to what your daughter is saying. She clearly trusts you enough to have opened this discussion so, hard though it might be, you have to hear her point of view. These are obviously very emotional topics for lots of reasons, so it might be a good idea for the three of you to go to a service such as Relate, where feelings can be explored and contained in a safe environment. Whatever you do, don't shout your daughter down or deny this is how it was for her. How she feels is, for now, your daughter's reality.
Don't feel guilty
You have nothing to reproach yourself for. Your love and courage enabled you to care for your disabled daughter. It was inevitable that Kirstie would not receive as much attention as she had hoped for during her childhood and I am sure that while growing up she did not understand the burdens you had to bear. However, she's an adult now and should know better. If she had been born disabled, would she rather you had put her in a home, away from her parents and sister?
The love you have for your children is unconditional, but sometimes certain ones need more attention than others. This has nothing to do with neglect. One day she might have children of her own and understand how hard you tried to care for Polly. Now that she is in a home, you will have more time for Kirstie, should she need your support. Though quite frankly, I don't think she deserves it.
Be proud of yourself
Kirstie may be right, but it doesn't matter. Neither of you can rewrite history and you just need to keep emphasising that you have always loved both of your daughters equally. Obviously Polly took up more time, but presumably Kirstie loves her sister and will eventually come to understand why you had to do all you could for her. Now that Kirstie is 18 one would hope that she is becoming independent. Perhaps if she too left home (has she already?) she would be able to come back to you in a new, more adult relationship. Please don't worry, and feel proud of what you have done for both children.
Next week's dilemma
I've been depressed for a long time, but I remember as a child getting a glimpse of what life could be. I was running along a beach, and suddenly I felt filled with joy and peace, at one with the elements, and just like "me". I try to recreate that moment, and friends say they often have moments like that, but however hard I try – by relaxing, meditating, taking anti-depressants, having counselling, I never seem to experience that sheer pleasure in being alive. Am I doomed to feeling permanently down?
Yours sincerely, Linda
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