Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: My Son’s Uncle Is Mistreating Him

sad tween
Photo by RimDream/shutterstock

Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,

Jason, my second child is 13 years old. His uncle, Paul, who is my brother, really has it in for Jason. He is always in his face, speaking to him with rudeness and unkindness, yelling at him. Paul claims that Jason is spoiled rotten and that he will be disliked by others.

Both my mother and I have talked with Paul about his mistreatment of Jason. At one point Paul apologized and claimed that he loved Jason, but then he went back to yelling at him whenever he does something he does not approve of.

Paul has fraternal twins; they love Jason and me, and we love them. Jason says he feels sorry for the twins because they dislike their father’s behavior and are afraid of him.

Jason says he hates his uncle and when he’s older, he, Jason that is, will tell his uncle that his behavior is shameful, that he doesn’t need his uncle in his life, and that he’s better off without him.

I have decided that Jason and I will avoid all contact with Paul and his family.

Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response,

I understand why you have decided not to spend time with your brother and his family: Your decision is to protect your 13-year-old son from an uncle who is psychologically mistreating him. This is one of the most important things a parent can do — that is, protect their child from any kind of harm. Yes, it is sad that the three cousins will not be spending time together, but you must do whatever you have to do to protect your son. This makes you a good mom!

Some may question why I use the term “psychological mistreatment” to describe Paul’s behavior toward Jason, rather than use the term “emotional abuse.” The distinction is actually a tribute to Jason’s strength in his refusal to let Paul demean or chip away at his self-esteem. The definition of emotional abuse is “a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth. This may include constant criticism, threats, or rejection, as well as withholding love, support, or guidance.” It seems Jason is not being impaired by his uncle’s behaviors.

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Jason Will Be Just Fine

Jason is clear in his feelings towards his uncle: he hates him. He is also clear that at a later time, “when he is older,” he will express to Paul how he feels about him: “that his behavior is shameful, that he doesn’t need his uncle in his life, and that he’s better off without him.” This is evidence of why I feel Jason will not suffer any serious long-term damage from this situation with his uncle.

I say this because: Jason is clear about his feelings towards his uncle; he has an action plan that he can communicate and can sustain him; he has family support in his corner. Whether he actually confronts his uncle when he is older is beside the point. At the moment he correctly recognizes that his uncle’s behavior towards him is shameful and that it is also negatively affecting how his own children feel about him.

I point this out because in similar situations — where children are victims of psychological mistreatment / emotional abuse by adults — many children assume that there is something wrong with them; sadly, they often feel they deserve whatever bad treatment they are experiencing. The psychological damage can be horrendous and long lasting.

Many kids don’t have the psychological wherewithal and/or experience to recognize that they are being victimized by someone who has problems and serious behavioral shortcomings. And, most important, they may not have a mother, a grandparent, or other important adults in their lives standing up for them, walling them off from those who would harm them. Yes, the odds are good that Jason will be just fine.

Compassion and Hatred

A couple of final comments … I suspect I will hear from some readers who will say that I should show some compassion for Paul, as he is obviously a troubled man. Please note that I do not have compassion for any adult who mistreats or abuses children. Yes, they need help and I hope they get it, but no matter what their circumstances or past experiences, nothing excuses them if they harm children. Nothing.

I also expect to hear from readers who will take me to task for my accepting without comment Jason’s expressed hatred for his uncle. Yes, hatred can be a disabling emotion when it totally takes over one’s entire emotional landscape, for example, when one becomes so fixated on revenge that it prevents them from enjoying a range of positive emotions. Agreed, this is not good.

However, in this case, Jason, just a kid, who is being emotionally knocked about by an adult, I think his hatred of his uncle can be a liberating emotion, one that levels the playing field. It may give him some sense of control, that he’s not at the mercy of his uncle. I would venture that over time Jason’s hatred of his uncle will evolve into pity and/or indifference, unless his uncle sincerely and truly changes — not impossible, but unlikely without professional help.

Meanwhile, Jason can get on with his life, knowing that his mother has his back.

brother and sister standing back to back
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Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

Email queries to [email protected]

Dr. Rancourt’s most recent book is,

It’s All About Relationships: New Ways to Make Them Healthy and Fulfilling, at Home and at Work

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