Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Uncle Is Unkind Toward My Son with Celiac Disease

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The relationship between my brother and me has been problematic for many years. In fact, I’ve asked him to go to counseling with me to work on how we can have a better relationship and he refuses. I feel my brother has instigated my extended family to be critical and judgmental of me. For example, five years ago they told me they were offended that I didn’t share my child with them soon enough after he was born, but I was very sick post partum so nothing went the way I expected.

Anyway, six months ago my older son, 5, was diagnosed with celiac disease. This is an autoimmune disease that can be serious where his body reacts to gluten, a common protein found in wheat. If not managed, our son could suffer from indigestion, cramps, heartburn, bone loss, malnutrition, or fatigue, delayed or slow growth. My husband and I have been doing our best to navigate what our son needs to stay healthy.

For example, my husband and I changed our family gatherings with my brother, his wife, and their son from sharing a meal together to just doing activities together so my son doesn’t feel different since he can’t eat what everyone else does.  

My brother has informed me that he and his wife feel that it’s too much work to be around us because they find it tense to have to be aware of what is safe and isn’t safe for my son. He’s already told me he’s done with me because I didn’t take his advice on how to deal with my son’s autoimmune disease.

So my questions for you are: How do you recommend handling family members who are unsupportive of a child’s disease? And more importantly, if we do not see my brother and his wife and his child anymore, how do we explain this estrangement to our four- and five-year old sons?

The more I think about this the more I am realizing my real question is: How do I have a relationship with my narcissistic and verbally abusive sibling?

Let’s take a step back from your question about how to have a relationship with your brother and reframe it as: Why do you want to continue a relationship with a sibling you describe as narcissistic and verbally abusive? You yourself mention estrangement, so I assume you are rethinking your relationship with your brother.

Perhaps I can be helpful by sharing with you a list I have compiled on reasons why people stay in relationships that they know are unsatisfying, unhealthy, and perhaps even toxic. A sure tell that a relationship should probably be ended is when one repeatedly, and over an extended period of time, says to himself/herself and/or to others:

  • “Why do I put up with him/her?”
  • “This relationship is too much work.”
  • “This relationship is depressing/stressing me/making me anxious” or “making me physically ill.”
  • “I worry that this relationship is harming my children.”

Reasons Why People Stay in Unsatisfying or Unhealthy Relationships
A major reason why people stay in unsatisfying and/or unhealthy relationships can be attributed to fear – specifically, a fear of:

1. Being alone, isolated, loneliness.

2. Being judged a loser and/or being ridiculed.

3. Losing out financially.

4. Losing accustomed security, safety and creature comforts.

5. Disappointing others.

6. Creating conflict/having to deal with conflict.

7. Embarrassing oneself, e.g., friends and family said from the get-go this relationship was doomed.

8. Starting new relationships, feeling socially rusty and awkward.

9. Others aligning with offending person against you resulting in more fractured relationships you have to deal with.

Other reasons include:

10. Low self-esteem, feeling unworthy, e.g., “I don’t deserve to be treated better.”

11. Self-blame or self-recrimination, e.g., “I must have brought this on myself.”

12. Practicalities and conveniences, e.g., complexities of splitting possessions, forgoing health insurance, a diminished quality of life.

13. Impact on children and pets.

14. Guilt, e.g., he/she stuck by me during my difficult time.

15. Time, e.g., feeling so much unrecoverable time has been invested, it would be a waste to walk away.

16. Hoping, things will get better.

Of course not all of these possible reasons will apply to your particular situation with your brother, but one or more may well apply. I suggest you pinpoint the ones that may apply and either on your own, or working with someone you trust, talk and/or write out in detail why that particular reason has some kind of a hold on you, and what you would need to do to lessen or eliminate that reason. It is likely any changes will have to come from you and your husband and not come from your brother.

Based on much information you have shared with me that space precludes me from including here, there is a long history in your extended family of unkind, uncaring, and insensitive behavior toward you, your husband, and your boys.

Regarding this recent situation of your son being diagnosed with celiac disease, I think you are wise to recognize that your son’s disease is not the cause of the current rift, but rather, is just another excuse for your brother to act out his not being able and/or his unwillingness to be kind and respectful toward you and your family.

Whether you decide to minimize or eliminate interactions with your brother and his family, if your sons want to know why the visits have lessened or are not happening at all, you can simply say that they’re busy, and you all are busy. When your boys are older and are looking for a more detailed explanation you can explain that their uncle and aunt were not as understanding about and supportive of your family’s needs regarding your son’s celiac disease.

I think you will find that if you provide your boys with a life rich with activities and friendships, they will be less bothered by the absence of their uncle and his family in their lives than you are anticipating.

In closing, I want to give you my answer to your original question: How do I have a relationship with my narcissistic and verbally abusive sibling? Perhaps you don’t.

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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