Between You and Me: Concerned Uncle

By Katherine H. Smith M.S.Ed., M.A. Created: January 29, 2012 Last Updated: February 20, 2013
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Dear Kathy,

I have a baby niece whom I love. She’s my big brother’s daughter and she is the joy of our lives. My brother and I have always been close to each other and our parents. We spend all of our holidays together, as well as frequent weekends and vacations. Spending time with my niece—the only child in our family—is the highlight of our get-togethers.

However, my sister-in-law always seems uncomfortable at our gatherings and does not allow us to play with her daughter. When I do get to spend time with my niece, my sister-in-law always interferes with her daughter’s fun and our quality time together. My sister-in-law has become increasingly antisocial since she had the baby a year ago.

Any advice as to how I can see my niece more often, and how to reduce the constant interference?

The worst part of this whole thing is that my parents are heartbroken. After they got married, my brother and his wife shared that they intended to have three or four kids. My folks were so excited when my niece was born because they were hoping for a houseful of grandchildren running around within a few years. Instead, they don’t even get to see the baby nearly as much as they’d like to, and my brother is becoming increasingly frustrated by his wife’s coldness toward the rest of us. He doesn’t understand it either, and he feels bad for my parents.

Please advise us about how we can get my sister-in-law to loosen up.

Concerned Uncle


Dear Concerned,

I am sorry to hear about your restricted relationship with your beloved niece. It is sad to note that your case is an increasingly common one these days. Fortunately, there are proactive strategies which you and your family members can employ to improve the situation.

First of all, I advise you, your parents, and your brother to resist the understandable temptation to stigmatize your sister-in-law’s behavior.

In your letter, you allude to your sister-in-law as uncomfortable, interfering, antisocial, cold, and up-tight. Studies on verbal and nonverbal communication demonstrate that a mere 7 percent of our communication with others is verbal. Therefore, it is safe to assume that your sister-in-law is likely aware of the negative view your family has of her.

I understand your pain and frustration; please don’t think that I am assigning blame. However, from a purely logical standpoint, your sister-in-law is the gatekeeper for your niece. If your brother’s wife feels she is disliked, she will naturally want to avoid getting together with those who dislike her. The better your relationship with Mommy, the more time you will spend with Baby Girl.

In order to improve your relationship with Mommy, it is imperative that you adopt a more positive frame of reference for her behavior. Do your best to see the good in her. This one simple shift inside of you can make a profound difference in the way she responds to you, and the success of your interactions with her.

Also, keep in mind that the source of her behavior could be the result of valid issue she is struggling with. Could she be suffering from post-partum depression? Does she feel overwhelmed by her responsibilities as a new mother? Does she have an underlying trauma history that giving birth to her little girl has emotionally activated? Does she suffer from social anxiety or a mood disorder? Do your brother and his wife have different, equally valid viewpoints on how often they enjoy spending time with extended family members? Keep in mind that this is a possibility, but not in order to place more blame on the mother. She needs your support, not any kind of finger-pointing.

Finally, perhaps your sister-in-law is just an overly conscientious new mom who gets nervous when her little one is being bounced around by an exuberant young uncle. All mom’s parenting philosophies are a little different. By taking the time to ask questions and understand how she would like people to interact with her daughter, the whole situation could turn around.

My advice to you, as well as Grandma and Grandpa, is to be patient with your sister-in-law as she navigates the life-transforming journey into motherhood. It’s a slow process and it will take time for her to find her way. Rather than assume that there is something wrong with her, ask open-ended questions and try to understand concerns she has about the interactions with her daughter, and how you can make her feel more comfortable in the family situation.

Take this opportunity to be as supportive as possible. Allow your sister-in-law and brother the freedom to decide for themselves how they want their family of three to spend weekends, holidays, and vacations. As she feels more affirmed by your family members in her new role of mother, she will likely enjoy family gatherings more.

Trust me, by the time she has another child or two or three, she will be overjoyed to drop her kids off at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s as often as possible.

Until Monday,

Katherine H. Smith combines her 46 years of life experience, 18 years of marriage, and raising 5 children, with an M.S.Ed. in guidance and counseling and an M.A. in marriage and family therapy. To address your concerns, please send your letters to Please include a contact phone number and e-mail address.

Information provided in this column is not intended to be used as a substitute for specific medical or psychological advice.


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