I have a brother who is struggling with his children. In the last year he has changed a lot. He has three beautiful daughters and a son. Whenever we get together with their family, things are absolutely chaotic. The children are starving for attention and they almost look homeless (e.g., dirty and old clothes, messy hair, etc.) The youngest shows some signs of autism but they will not get him checked out. I worry that my brother and his wife aren’t giving them the care and attention they need. Do you have any ideas on what I can do as an uncle and brother to help out?
Based on your thoughtful question, it’s obvious that you understand the delicate nature of this situation. The actions you take based on your careful concerns could be a blessing to this struggling family. On the other hand, anything you do may be perceived as judgmental and intrusive. I will make a few recommendations to help you walk the fine line between these two potential outcomes.
First of all, if there are any concerns related to safety of these children, and your brother and his wife aren’t able or willing to protect them, it will become imperative that you do something to protect the children. If you are worried that the children are experiencing neglect or abuse in any form, you must take immediate action to make sure the children are placed in a safe environment.
If there are no urgent concerns with the safety of the children, I recommend you take the time to truly understand what may be going on with your brother and his wife. There are reasons they are currently struggling. You mentioned that things haven’t always been this way. You’re probably not the only one who has noticed the difficulty of their situation.
The best way for you to help them is to build a genuine and caring relationship with them so you can be trusted enough to find out their real needs. Conversely, if you approach them with the intention of fixing their dilemma, they will feel judged and most likely become defensive. It’s imperative that you check your heart to make sure that you have the patience, sincerity, and compassion to enter their world and understand why they are struggling.
Regardless of the distance between you and their family, you can do things to begin connecting with them to build a relationship of safety and trust where they won’t feel judged. The only way they will let you into their private struggles is for them to know that you care about them. Unless there are safety concerns, your job is to love and support them where invited and allowed.
As you spend time with them listening to their thoughts about life, their children, work, and other areas, you will begin to understand their needs. You can also build a relationship with each of your nieces and nephew. If you live close by, you can plan outings with each of the children. Most children will develop resilience in the face of stressful circumstances when they have adults in their life who are unfailingly committed to them.
You may notice that they struggle in their marriage. You may learn they have financial problems. There may be addiction. Some of the most embarrassing and shameful reasons people struggle are often hidden from those who might be seen as judgmental and punitive. As you stay close to them and demonstrate your reliability, you will be setting yourself up in the best position to be the most helpful.
Don’t underestimate the influence of your presence in their family. They may feel lonely and misunderstood by other family members, their neighbors, and others. They may share some of the same concerns you have about their children, but may be too overwhelmed or embarrassed to know what to do. Your involvement and interest in their family may give them the encouragement to keep going in the face of challenging circumstances.
People are rarely willing to change until they feel understood and accepted as they are. When someone tries to make us change, it’s human nature to dig in our heels and resist. Any efforts to try and change them by confronting them will most likely create more distance. As an outsider, you’ll feel even more helpless.
You already have the heartfelt concern working in your favor. Take that concern and move it into action by looking for ways to spend more time with them, getting to know their children better, and demonstrating your commitment to their growth and well-being. Your willingness to do more than just sigh and shoulder-shrug will pay off in the long run.
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, UT. Please send questions for future columns to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Geoff maintains a blog, article archive, Twitter feed, and Facebook page which are available at www.geoffsteurer.com.