Living Columns & Blogs

Carolyn Hax: How to explain to son about his aunt’s mood disorder?

DEAR CAROLYN: My husband has a sister with what seems to be a severe mood disorder. She will appear to be doing fine, then out of nowhere explode and scream at the top of her lungs at anyone. Their parents seem to brush it off, like nothing is happening, but I worry about the image this sends to my young son. It will never be appropriate for him to yell, especially at his family; why can his aunt do it?

She is family, I am torn. How much do we exclude her from our life despite constant attempts to spend time with us and our son? What is my position as my husband’s wife to deal with these “explosions” and mental issues?


DEAR L.: Remember, bad examples are useful, too: “Wow – when Aunt yells, I find it so upsetting. How about you, Child? Did it bother you?” Then, listen to his response. When reinforced through repetition, that small exercise in giving him a voice – a real voice, not a disruptive, attention-seeking one – will serve him not just in this situation, but in virtually any other he encounters.

You also must acknowledge the possible role of illness: “I do hope Aunt gets some help. This can’t feel good to her, either.”

Your position as spouse, meanwhile, is to be 50 percent of the decision-making panel on ways to handle this family dysfunction.

That starts with your admitting to your husband, “The whole dynamic around your sister upsets me, and I’m torn about how to handle it. Is there something we can or should be doing differently?”

Where it ends up will depend on how receptive your husband is to the idea that his sister’s emotional state and his family’s way of dealing with it are (a) problems and (b) grounds for rethinking your roles.

Worst case, he refuses to discuss it – at which point I suggest counseling, for you, or at least a call to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 800-950-NAMI. Family stuff is like cigarette smoke with its secondhand effects, and it’s unlikely this is the only way it seeps in.

DEAR CAROLYN: We are only weeks away from the annual school fundraiser where my grandkids come by with catalogs of overpriced “stuff” eagerly awaiting my order. I don’t mind contributing to school causes and I appreciate that the students are learning they must get involved.

My problem is that items I bought for my office staff as holiday gifts weren’t delivered to me until after the new year, and I am still waiting for the “stuff” I bought last year.

The “stuff” is really not that important to me, but I am annoyed that each year I must participate in this fiction. Do I politely urge the kids to take responsibility for delivering what they sell, or just write the check?

Lesson #24 in Being a Good Grandparent

DEAR LESSION: (C) Tell the kids you don’t need anything in the catalogs, then hand them a check made out directly to the school. Lesson #17 in not lighting your money on fire.