Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Getting the Messages Right (Part I of II Parts)

Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,

The family issues I have shared with you over the past few years continue. My six-year-old son has two chronic illnesses, so he can’t eat what everyone else can eat. Therefore he picked his birthday party location to be at my mom’s office so he could role-play being at work. We invited my parents and my brother, with whom I have had ongoing issues, and his wife and their one-year-old daughter.

My brother declined the invitation saying they felt an office isn’t a safe place and they didn’t want to chase their kid around. Then he proceeded to tell me that my son should be doing more age-appropriate activities. They did not attend the party.

My brother and his wife dropped off a gift for my son on our doorstep in the rain, even after I begged them that whatever issue they have with me, to not take it out on my son. They refused to give him the respect of handing him his gift.

We just want to be very careful the message we send our son because we don’t want to him to internalize any of it and think that because he’s different he isn’t good enough. What is your advice for a family when the grown-ups’ issues are being transferred to the next generation? We also have a four-and-a-half-year-old who is caught up in this.

And finally, any advice for what my parents are to do? We have already assumed all holidays will be separate and we will see my parents when my brother isn’t around.


Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response

I think I can be most helpful by responding to the three points you raise.

(1) “We want to send the right messages to our sons.”

I agree with you that the messages you send your sons are critical. If you want to send your boys the message that nothing is more important than maintaining family connections, no matter how badly, disrespectfully, even cruelly family members treat you, then I think you will continue as you have been.

That is, as has been the pattern through the years: your brother and his family mistreat you, you get upset, and nothing changes. Then the cycle repeats itself, with new instances of your brother being emotionally inappropriate and aggressive.

Your brother is (you fill in the blanks): judgmental? mean? self-centered? unpredictable? boorish? These are a few of the descriptors that come to my mind based on what you have shared with me through the years. The fact is that your brother is who he is, and chances are he is not going to change, despite your high hopes that he will.

However, if the message you want to send your boys is that they can count on you and your husband always to do whatever you can to protect them from bad people hurting them, both emotionally and physically, then this suggests a different relationship with your brother and his family

A basic question for you to answer is, why, in light of all the damage he’s done, is my brother still in my life? If you are having difficulty answering that question, then perhaps some sessions with a family relations professional may be in order to help you work through to an answer that makes sense for you and your family.
Possible resources to locate a professional include: (1) American Association for Marriage and Family ; (2) Good Therapy.

(2) “We also have a four-and-a-half-year-old son who is caught up in this.”

Regarding this second point you raise, you are absolutely correct when you say your brother’s behavior affects more than just your older son. In fact, your brother has been negatively affecting you, your husband, and two boys for quite a while now, either directly or indirectly. When you’re upset, this spills over into everyone’s lives around you.

You are in the driver’s seat and have total control over the role and influence you allow your brother to play in your lives. He has access to you only if you give him access. To say that your younger son is “caught up in this” makes it sound like something is going on around him that is inevitable and out of your control. It is not inevitable: It is happening because you are allowing your brother to have power over you.

Quite simply, what does your brother need to do that you say, “Enough is enough!”

(3) Any advice for what my parents are to do?

Regarding advice for your parents: Once you are working with a professional, he/she will be able to advise your parents. Meanwhile, I am sure your parents do not want to find themselves in the middle of the problems between you and your brother, so I suggest your parents announce to both you and your brother that they will not be having any conversations with either of you about the issues between you.
In this way they can avoid looking as if they are taking sides. Taking this position doesn’t mean they don’t care. Rather, it means they don’t care to get involved without professional guidance.

Acknowledge the gift

You didn’t specifically ask, but I do want to make a suggestion regarding the gift your brother left for your son. I would take the high road and have your son send your brother and his family a thank-you note. If your son is aware of the circumstances of his gift being left unceremoniously on your porch, I would let him know that that was rude on your brother’s part and it is not how things are done in your family.

Don’t cover for your brother: you can tell your son(s) that even if your brother behaves in ways that are unacceptable, you are a family that behaves with courtesy and good manners, hence, the thank-you note.

(Note: Part II of this situation will be posted on 1/23/18.)


Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
E-mail queries to [email protected].

Karen L. Rancourt’s most recent book is,
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts.

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