When Family Doesn't Understand

Relatives can be a source of support or sabotage. You can get the backing you need from your family — sometimes.

by Christina Medvescek on April 1, 2002 - 1:24pm

Bible stories, fairy tales, legends and myths are full of accounts of families. Many of them are quite horrible. Betrayal, abandonment, deception and outright acts of hostility are common themes. Think of Cain and Abel, or Hansel and Gretel, or King Arthur or that whole big quarrelsome family of Greek gods.

Yet — despite these warnings — when the chips are down, we expect our extended family (parents, adult siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins) to be there for us.

Amazingly, wonderfully, sometimes they are. With loving words and deeds, they help us bear up under the weight of disaster. They keep us going, body and soul. They form a tight-knit web of support that won't let us fall no matter how bad things get.

But sometimes, family members aren't there for us. Where we hope to find support, instead we find empty phrases, or criticism, or denial, or worse, nothing at all. Instead of helping us cope, their responses make things harder. Comments and actions that would bounce off coming from a stranger cut to the heart because the source is a family member.

"It's not that my family is harsh," says the mother of a child who uses a wheelchair. "It's just that the stupid things they say are worse because they're family, and I would like to think they know better."

How do people coping with a neuromuscular disease in the immediate family handle having poor support from their extended families? Why do some relatives act like this? Can anything be done to correct the problem?

Here's a look at the situation through the experiences of MDA support group leaders and families (some of whom have asked to remain anonymous in this article).

What's the problem?

There are many unhelpful ways in which extended families may respond to neuromuscular disease, including:

Denying, minimizing, avoiding

Not everyone can cope with painful news, especially when the situation can't be fixed or controlled. In response, some people basically put their hands over their ears.

For example, when the doctor diagnosed Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) in her son Raymond, Anneliese Villegas of Ashland, Ore., called her mother with the bad news. Even now, eight years later, she remembers the conversation well.

"Mom said, 'Oh. That's too bad. Well, I really need to go right now, because I have a hair appointment.'

"We couldn't talk about it with her. She just wanted to hear 'we're fine.' That was hard. I never felt like I could tell them when I had a bad day, and I never could share some of the black humor with them, which, you know, helps you cope."

Pat Schulz of Roanoke, Va., still is unable to talk about her myotubular myopathy with her father, even though it's been 10 years since she received the diagnosis.

"Anytime I bring up anything about the MTM, my dad will change the subject. It hurts knowing that my father, being my only living parent, will not talk about the disease with me. I have shed many tears over this."

Sometimes a relative will "talk" about it, but not in a meaningful way. Julie Smith (not her real name) has mitochondrial myopathy, along with three of her five children. Whenever she tried to explain the medical situation to her in-laws, her father-in-law would interrupt with a cheery, "Yes, but it's going to be OK!"

Notes Cheryl Stigall, a social worker and MDA support group leader in San Diego, "Some people cope by minimizing problems and they want you to do that, too, because that's what works for them."

Still other relatives may be willing to "talk the talk" but not to "walk the walk."

Starla Collins of San Diego has two sons with DMD, and many family members live nearby. She says she gets wonderful verbal support but no action.

"I know their hearts are there, that they feel for the boys and me — but I wish they would just act on it and I wouldn't have to ask. When it comes to family, it's hard for me to ask. I wish they would just say, 'Hey, Starla, you need a break.' Why do I have to ask?"

Hurtful statements and criticisms

There's a history of DMD in Renee Willis' family, so when her son received his diagnosis, she thought her family would be sensitive to her needs. It came as a shock when some relatives "told me that I should not expect help or sympathy from the family in dealing with my son's disease, because I should have known better."

This attitude had a big impact on Willis, of Westminster, Colo. "It has caused me to be overly independent and not ask for or accept help that is offered to me. I don't want people to think that I have to lean on them because I can't deal with these problems that arise with my son's disease."

Criticism can be another form of denial. A grandparent may insist that a child with weak muscles just needs to "try harder" or that using a wheelchair is "giving in." A parent of an adult who receives a neuromuscular disease diagnosis may accuse the affected person of being lazy or a hypochondriac.

Criticism also can masquerade as advice or encouragement. Relatives may disparage a doctor's prescription or advocate miracle cures. When a 4-year-old with DMD still wasn't potty-trained, his aunt commented, "Just give him to me for a week and I'll get him trained!" Instead of being supportive, these statements send the implied message, "You're not handling this right."

Treating children unequally

"One big problem is how grandparents treat the siblings versus the child with special needs," says Becky Speulda, a social worker and MDA family support group leader in Portland, Ore. "It's a huge issue."

Too much or too little seems to be a problem. Some grandparents lavish attention and toys on the child with muscular dystrophy, to the exclusion — and distress — of the brothers and sisters. Grandparents also may object to (and sabotage) parents' attempts to discipline a child with MD.

"Parents want their child to be a child, not a 'disease,' especially when they're setting rules and limits," says Laura Frobel, a social worker and MDA support group leader in Warwick, R.I. "But grandparents aren't always supporting those rules because they want to keep the sick child 'happy.' Grandparents say it's because the child has a disease, but really it is a way of them not dealing with it."

At the opposite extreme, relatives may virtually ignore the affected child, planning outings in which he or she can't participate due to physical limitations. Or they give the children gifts that are too young for them, assuming that since their bodies have a disability, so do their minds.

Cluelessness

This category is broad and filled to the brim. Some relatives don't understand the situation, and don't think about the effects of what they say and do.

Kelli Brunk, a social worker and MDA support group leader in Miami, says a relative's or friend's insensitivity to a family's needs often results in feelings of isolation.

"I'll hear stories all the time, like: 'We went on a vacation with our friends and the condo was two stories high, and our friends said they wanted the first floor.' Or, 'We went to a barbecue and it started to rain, and everybody ran to their cars and there we were struggling in the rain to load up our sons.'"

Family members may think they're being kind without realizing how they're coming across.

Sherry Griep, of Beloit, Wis., has a 2-year-old with DMD. "If they want to know how he is doing, I am never asked. Someone else in the family is asked. It's like they're afraid I might get emotional if it is said to me. It's like I'm not there. I want people to know that I am not invisible because my son was diagnosed with this, and neither is he."

The parents of a boy with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) call these small insensitivities "tiresome and discouraging." At family get-togethers, they'll be assured that the home is wheelchair-accessible, only to arrive and find that it's not.

"It would be nice if people would see what's coming up so we don't always have to ask, 'Could you open up the second part of the French doors so the chair can get through?'" the parents lament.

Parents sometimes find their efforts to protect medically fragile children can be misinterpreted.

"A cold can easily put my son in the hospital," one father says. "People don't take it seriously because they just don't realize. At family gatherings, it has created some tension between my wife and other moms. They think of it as an overreaction when they see us trying to wipe down all the toys or keep away from the kids who are coughing."

Why do they act this way?

People may assume that family members behave insensitively because they don't care.

"But it's very rare that family members are too self-absorbed to care," Becky Speulda says. "Usually there are other things that get in the way."

Family dynamics is first on the list. All families have emotional baggage — and stress makes it worse.

Cheryl Stigall advises families to take a hard look at how their relatives offered support in the past. The patterns of the relationship are the best predictors of the future. If you had communication difficulties or lack of family support before the diagnosis, you'll be facing the same thing after it.

On the plus side, a family with strong relationships before the diagnosis usually will come through in the end. Laura Frobel notes, "If it was a good relationship to begin with, this will stress it but you can get through it." Time, patience and education are the keys, she says.

Grief often underlies many seemingly heartless acts, especially by grandparents. In the five stages of grief identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the first is denial and isolation.

"Grandparents worry about their grandchild and their child, the parent. They are carrying their own grief. They are going through a process, too. Sometimes they are overwhelmed and don't know what to do, so they don't do anything," Speulda says. "They are protecting themselves."

If the grandparents only see the child occasionally, they can get stuck in their grief and not move past the denial stage. Explains Frobel, "It's easier on a day-to-day basis to see the normality of the child, not just the disease."

Strong negative emotions like grief and helplessness aren't comfortable. Inappropriate or insensitive reactions often are a relative's way of trying to ease his or her own discomfort, Kelli Brunk says.

"When they avoid the problem, they are trying to distance themselves from emotional pain. When they get overinvolved and critical, they are trying to deny the existence of a disease process that is greater than they are. They can't control it so they try to control the way the patient is taken care of."

Guilt is another uncomfortable emotion that can come into play. Neuromuscular diseases usually are genetic and, although the gene flaw can arise spontaneously, relatives subconsciously may feel responsible. Pat Schulz, whose father refuses to discuss her MTM with her, says, "It took years to get my dad to even have a blood test to determine which side of the family had a history of the disease."

Frobel comments, "You sometimes hear people deny that the problem exists by saying, 'No one else in our family has it, so why would you have it?'"

Uncertainty is another factor. Many people don't know how to react to disability or serious illness until they've gone through it themselves. Schulz says, "People are afraid of the unknown, and disability scares them."

Relatives who don't see the affected person very often may become fixed on the disease and fail to see the person underneath. Lack of education about the disease and the way it progresses also makes it difficult for relatives to respond naturally, making interactions awkward.

Some people just need something concrete to do

"People who like to fix things often have a hard time dealing with an incurable disease like DMD," says Anneliese Villegas, whose mother hurried off to a hair appointment upon hearing of her grandson's diagnosis. Eight years later, her mother is starting to come around. When the boy got a power chair this year, Villegas' parents paid to have a ramp built into the house.

"Before, they didn't know how to be helpful," she says. "Now they feel more empowered to help. It's opened up our conversation a little more."

Stereotypes and cultural assumptions also play a role.

The Americans with Disabilities Act may have outlawed discrimination but it can't touch what's in people's hearts and minds. Old-fashioned or culturally influenced attitudes toward disability die hard. In her culturally diverse support groups, Stigall occasionally hears of mothers who are blamed by their families for their children's diseases and fathers who back out of parenthood once it's clear their child isn't "perfect."

Similarly, grandparents who grew up when people with disabilities were pitied and spoken of in whispers may find it too painful to acknowledge that their grandchild is — in the language of yesterday — "a cripple."

Families and counselors agree that people aren't helpless against assaults on their spirit, but they must be willing to commit energy to creating a change. Some tried-and-true solutions include:

Communicate

Set clear boundaries, say what you need and what you expect. The first step in doing this is becoming clear in your own mind about what you want.

"You can't always get what you want," says Stigall philosophically. "But if you can't express exactly what you want, you are sure to be disappointed."

Speulda recommends working out the actual words you want to say and practicing in advance. "I need … " "It would help me if you would…"

You'll get better results if you use "I" language, which focuses on what you want and need, rather than "you" language, which points the finger of blame. A relative is more likely to respond positively to the statement, "I just need you to listen to me and understand what I'm going through," than to, "You never listen to me, you're always changing the subject."

Starla Collins, who has two sons with DMD, realizes she needs to communicate better. Collins admits she's more comfortable giving than receiving and that she has turned down offers of help in the past. But as she sees her boys' needs becoming greater, she knows she needs to be more proactive. She plans to start teaching family members how to help with the boys' physical care.

"Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm not asking enough," she muses. "I've felt like I didn't want to put anybody out. I'm always like, 'no, no, it's OK, I'll do it …' I know the support is there, but I need to start asking."

Of course, being a better communicator may not solve the problem. Sometimes you may need to enlist the help of a trained counselor or ask a neutral third party to sit in on the conversation. Or it may be more comfortable to write a letter than to speak in person.

At worst, clear communication won't hurt the situation — and it may help.

Educate

The more people know, the more likely they are to meet your needs. Some education involves telling people what you want. If you can't say it, post articles about helpful behaviors (such as this article).

Other education involves teaching people about the disease and how it manifests itself. Give family members books, MDA pamphlets and information obtained online. Invite selected family members to come to an MDA clinic appointment, which not only educates but helps them feel part of the process.

Educate relatives about the attitude you're taking toward your child or your disease. If you choose to be upbeat and focus on the positive, let them know and ask them to do the same. If grandparents are interfering with discipline, teach them that you see your child as a child first — not a disease first — with the same needs as an unaffected child.

Finally, educate people about how to act around someone with a disability, by helping them get to know you or the child better. Collins has initiated monthly family get-togethers in order to help her family become more comfortable with and knowledgeable about her boys. Al Freedman, whose son is severely affected by SMA, sometimes invites a relative to take a walk at family gatherings, so they can talk about his son's condition, abilities and personality and discuss any questions.

Blow it off

Don't waste precious emotional energy trying to straighten out every clueless relative. Practice what to say when hearing unwanted advice, criticism or insensitive comments: "Thank you for your concern"; "I'll keep that in mind"; "I appreciate that you care. We have decided that this is the best way to handle the situation."

Try to focus on the person's intention, rather than the words. If you have the energy to educate them, or if they're very important to you, then go for it, Speulda advises. But don't feel as if you have to fight every battle.

Accept and move on

Your family may never become the support system you want, no matter what you do or say. "Don't expect from somebody what they really can't give you," Villegas advises. This attitude can be emotionally liberating.

Above all, don't blame yourself for your family's lack of support, Brunk emphasizes. "People on the receiving end of denying or controlling behavior often feel incompetence or guilt or shame. But you have to think about it, not just react emotionally. Ask yourself, Where does this behavior come from? Whose problem is it really? What are they trying to accomplish with this attitude or behavior?"

If you can't let go of your expectations no matter what you do, discuss your feelings with a counselor. "I often hear people repeat, 'I'm so angry, I'm so angry, I'm so angry,'" Brunk says. "It's time to stop and decide not to spend energy on this person anymore. You need to move on and find someone who is not so toxic to you."

Find other support

For many people, the best support comes not from family but from friends. For one thing, friends often aren't as emotionally connected to the situation as family. For another, family is kind of a random assignment of people, whereas you and your friends choose each other.

"It's not a failure if your family isn't your biggest support," Speulda says. "In fact, that's often the way it works out."

Minimize contact with people who bring you down, Freedman advises. "Maximize time with family members who respect and support you and your child."

Renee Willis, whose relatives chastised her for having a child when DMD runs in the family, chooses to spend time with friends and family "that I trust and who don't look at me differently because of what I'm going through."

Anneliese Villegas is grateful for good friends who empathize without making it "a pity party." These friends acknowledge that they don't really know what she's going through, but they're there for her nonetheless.

Besides friends, support can be found in a church community, and through support groups of other people in similar circumstances. If an MDA support group isn't available in your area, you may find help in an MDA chat room or through a pen pal. Pat Schulz uses e-mail to vent to her best friend and has put together a website about her disease as a way to educate and "get my mind off things."

Focus on the positive

You can't always eliminate negative people from your life — and maybe you shouldn't.

Given time, many people adjust and their wonderfulness emerges. It may take weeks, months or years before an extended family member "gets it" and lovingly offers what you've been wanting for years. Laura Frobel recommends that you accept that they'll offer what they can when they can, and not before.

In the meantime, focus on positive aspects of the relationship, while taking steps to insulate yourself from the negative.

Adds Sherry Griep, "To those people who show support, I just want to say thank you. It means a lot."

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