Dealing with Aunt Grouch and Uncle Meanie

Chicago Tribune - August 29th, 2012

By Heidi Stevens, Tribune Newspapers

Your siblings are mean to your kids. Your kids adore them anyway. Should you rock the boat?

Parent advice (from our panel of staff contributors)

By all means, rock it. Slowly or violently. Eventually the kids are going to have their feelings hurt by Uncle Ernie and Aunt Gert. If Ernie and Gert are unconsciously mean, take them aside and gently explain your concerns. If they’re just mean-spirited jerks who take pleasure in this type of cruelty to children, tell them to knock it off or they won’t see you or the kids again.
— Bill Hageman

I think I would let my kids torture my siblings with affection. If the sibs are still mean, the kids will figure it out and change their minds, and the sibs will be showing their true colors. Who has time for such people in our lives?
— Dodie Hofstetter

A private, “When you said X to Jamie, that hurt me. Please don’t do that,” should establish parameters. If you say, “That hurt Jamie,” that’s a point that can be disputed, with “Jamie seems fine to me” or “He seems to like us just fine.” But “that hurt me” establishes, “When you hurt my kids, you have me to deal with.” If needed, you can add, “If this happens again, I won’t wait for a quiet moment alone to deal with it.”
— Phil Vettel

Expert advice  (Dr. Jeanne Safer, PHD)

You’ve probably figured this out already, but your siblings are likely projecting their feelings about you onto your children.
Maybe you were the favored child. Maybe you were the obnoxious troublemaker child. Maybe you were simply the child who had the poor judgment to go and be born, forever disrupting your siblings’ perfectly balanced universe.
“Anything that doesn’t make sense on the surface usually has historic roots,” says psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, author of “Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret” (Basic Books). “The uncle and aunt are very easily thrown into the past and begin to view the niece or nephew as their sibling. They no longer behave like adults, but as peers of their own niece or nephew.”
Charming! Now what do you do about it?
The fact that your kids adore them indicates your siblings are not always mean, and possibly even have some positive, fun qualities. In which case, Safer says, you’ve got some material with which to work.
“Tell your siblings, ‘Look, my daughter loves you, and you’re great with her some of the time. But some of the time you’re really a jerk, and I’m not going to let you spend time with her if you keep it up. It’s not good for her,'” Safer suggests. “You’ve got to protect your kids from the confusing messages they’re receiving.”
Very little good is likely to come from trying to drag your own relationship with your sibling into the conversation, Safer says.
“I wouldn’t even try to go into the past,” she says. “You’ve likely never experienced true brotherhood or sisterhood with these siblings, and you may need to grieve that and then find it psychologically with your peers.
“Biology,” she adds, “is only one kind of tie.”

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