Wednesday 7 December 2016

Should I keep my son from seeing his bullying uncle?

Published 27/10/2015 | 02:30

Illustration Maisie McNeice.
Illustration Maisie McNeice.

Advice on visits for a child to an uncle who has mental health issues and on how a grandfather can intervene to help an obese child, in the midst of a difficult break-up for the child's parents.

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Question: My brother suffers from mental health issues. He is in his 30s now and hasn't worked at all for the last five years. He lives with my elderly parents and takes over the whole house. None of the rest of us siblings like visiting as it is too upsetting to see him throw his life away and bully my parents.

My four-year-old son adores his uncle and they have a wonderful time together. But, it is only a matter of time before my son picks up on the stresses and strains in that house. Do you think I should limit his exposure to his uncle?

David replies: I don't think there is a simple yes or no response. You have to consider the many variables.

In the first instance, let's consider your brother. You state that he has mental health issues, but don't give any detail about the nature of those issues. The kind of mental health issues that he has could make a difference to the potential relationship he might develop with your son.

It isn't that any one kind of mental health problem would preclude him from having a relationship with his nephew. Having a mental health problem doesn't automatically make a person more dangerous to a child.

Usually, the only reason to prevent children having access to adults in their family or extended family is that the child might be at risk of harm from the adult.

From what you say, I don't get the impression that your brother is at risk of explicitly harming your son. It seems, in fact, that the risk you perceive is that in some way your son might end up emotionally abused by his contact with his uncle or from being in a house where there is tension and upset.

That is a fair concern to have. There are certainly some mental health issues, particularly problems that involve psychosis, where the person is detached from reality, that can greatly increase their risk to themselves and others. Sometimes people suffering from mood disorders can be unpredictable in their behaviour or in their comments.

That unpredictability can, at times, be anxiety-provoking for children to experience. It might, therefore, make sense to protect children from that by limiting their contact with an adult who may act in a confusing, or emotionally manipulative, way.

That, then, is the judgement that you must make about your brother and the situation's potential to emotionally distress your son.

The other factor to consider is how able you are to contextualise whatever happens at your parents' house to your son. Can you explain the atmosphere in their home, or the tension or conflict that may be evident, to your son in a way that can reassure him that none of it is his fault, or is even to do with him?

In life, we cannot protect our children from emotional stresses and strains that exist in our own relationships or our relationships with friends and family. It is naïve to think that we can spare them this emotional struggle.

Indeed, if we do spare them by avoiding certain situations, we might do them a disservice as they can never learn how to deal with those stresses and strains. We might block their chance to develop their resilience and coping, if they never have the opportunity to try out those skills in their relationships.

So, on balance, it seems to me that it is fair enough for your son to continue to hang out with his uncle. From what you describe, their direct relationship seems to be really positive for them both.

Your job is to monitor the tensions that your son gets exposed to, if he is at his grandparents, such that you can support and reassure him. You might need, for example, to filter some of what gets said, or explain in easy language why people are arguing.

This allows your son to make better sense of what he sees and hears. It allows him to grow, in terms of his emotional intelligence, as he comes to understand the moods and behaviours of other people.

It may be that you would like to limit your own exposure to your brother and his bullying behaviour. That is a perfectly fine choice to make, but be careful not to cloak your decisions about your own emotional wellbeing, as decisions about your son's emotional wellbeing.

My grandson is obese and his parents are separated. I want to help but my son won't let me talk to his ex

Question: I am a grandfather and at my wits end. My eldest son was married but is now separated and there is still quite a deal of angst between him and his ex-wife. They have just one son, aged 13. This young boy is seriously obese. I want to write to my daughter-in-law to offer to get her son into some sort of programme to help him towards a normal life. My son will not allow me.

My grandson has told me that he is being bullied and called the cruellest of names at school. He also says he'd like to do something about his weight. What am I to do?

David replies: It can be very hard to feel like you are stuck on the sideline, with lots to offer, and no opportunity to make a difference.

Perhaps the issue, about which you feel stymied, is very different within different families, but the desire to help your grandchildren is, I am sure, a universal one.

Your frustration (and probable upset) at being held back in those desires by the parents of your grandson is also, probably, a common experience.

However, that is the natural order of things. Parents get to make decisions about the best interests (or otherwise) of their children and grandparents don't. Unfortunately, you cannot have an expectation that you will have a role in influencing what happens to your grandchildren.

So, I wouldn't recommend getting involved directly with your son's ex-wife, as I think it represents meddling of a substantial nature. Indeed, if your son and his ex-wife are still in quite a degree of conflict, any direct intervention by you may further polarise them in their hostile positions.

I also think that your son would feel very undermined if you were to go directly to his ex-wife. Any decisions about the care and welfare of his son are his and his ex's shared responsibility. His position as a parent will be destabilised further if you are seen to be trying to "take over" a key aspect of your grandson's wellbeing.

You are already doing a lot for your grandson by providing him with a listening ear. It seems like your grandson confides in you and he is a lucky young man to have someone within his family that he can talk openly with.

Assuming your grandson is happy, then your best approach is to talk further with his dad. Make sure that his dad is aware of just how distressed his son is and that resolution of the problem will lie with both him and the boy's mother. It is up to your son to persuade his ex-wife of the critical nature of dealing with his son's distress.

You can also encourage your grandson to talk directly with his mother about his own worries about his weight and about the dramatic impact it is having on him in terms of bullying. Perhaps if she heard, directly from him, about his distress, she might recognise the need to take action.

It is very possible to deal with childhood obesity and the best approach might not be an individualised programme for your grandson.

A systemic approach, within the family, both shares the responsibility for the creation of the problem and shares the responsibility for solving the weight issues too.

Naturally, with the separation of his parents and the conflict between them, it may be hard for them to approach the problem as a whole family, but unless they are actually all working together, it will be really hard to address it.

If his parents feel pushed into a particular course of action to resolve the weight issues then they may resent it and may, in fact, scupper any attempts you make to set up some kind of intervention.

So, by all means focus some energy on persuading your son of the scale and severity of the problem, and his responsibility to persuade his ex-wife that they need to do something, together, to resolve it. But leave the mechanism of how to solve it to them to determine.

In the meantime, continue to be a supportive listener for your grandson and continue to offer him a safe haven from the bullies and from the probable stresses of being stuck in the middle of his parents' separation.

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