Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Grandmother Shows Favoritism

My husband and I have a blended family with three sons and a daughter, ranging in age from 2 to 13. Between my husband’s two married siblings and their four children, plus our four kids, this is a total of eight grandchildren. The problem we need help with has to do with my husband’s mother (my mother-in-law, Dorothy). Six of Dorothy’s eight grandchildren are biological. She is very warm and loving towards them, but she refuses to give attention or love to two of my sons, her non-biological grandchildren.

I have talked with Dorothy about this, explaining to her that her non-biological grandchildren are innocent children and they deserve the same love and attention she shows her other grandchildren. Her response was, “I don’t know what to tell you.”

Recently, after my son (whom my husband has adopted) went to my mother-in-law’s house with my husband and our two-year-old daughter (a biological granddaughter), my son said to me, “Mom, I don’t think Grandma likes me or loves me. She doesn’t talk to me or kiss me. She only kissed and talked to the baby.”

I don’t let my children go over there anymore because the way she acts really hurts both my sons’ feelings. I don’t know what to do anymore. My husband’s advice is that I should ignore the situation and not let it bother me. I hope you can help.

When you explained to your mother-in-law how her withholding love and affection from your boys was hurting them, her reply, “I don’t know what to tell you,” was actually very informative. Without getting into a lot of psycho-babble, I find her response to be passive-aggressive, meaning that – despite her outward calm manner – I suspect some hostile and mean-spirited emotions underneath; your boys are beginning to pick up on this, too.

If you are a regular reader of my column, you may agree that I typically offer advice intended to build bridges and repair essential family relationships that are damaged or broken. However, in your situation, not only do I understand why you don’t want your boys to be around your mother-in-law anymore, I fully support your decision. Let me say it in an even stronger way: I applaud your decision.

Too many times, for a variety of reasons, grandparents are given a free pass. It is one thing when grandparents fall short of the stereotype of the loving and doting grandparent, but it is quite another matter when they behave in hurtful or mean ways that can be harmful to their grandchildren. Your boys are well aware of their grandmother’s preference for her other grandchildren over them and this knowledge has the potential to leave them with lasting emotional scars.

The danger is that because your boys’ grandmother is unloving towards them, they will conclude they are unlovable. Children tend to think of adults as being all knowing and right, so it is possible, even likely, they will come to believe they are not worthy of Grandma’s love, and that there is something wrong with them.

However, because of your clear and decisive intervention – keeping them away from Grandma – you are communicating strong and necessary messages to your boys and your mother-in-law. You and your husband (a few words on his involvement below) can explain to your three older boys you are disappointed that Grandma doesn’t seem to be able to make all her grandchildren feel comfortable and welcome in her presence, so you’ve decided to stop visits with her, at least for a while. You need to emphasize that none of them has done anything wrong: you want to respect Grandma, but you are finding that hard to do when she is disrespectful towards some of her grandchildren.

Your conversation with Dorothy is along the same lines, i.e., because she doesn’t seem able to be attentive and loving towards your boys who are not her biological grandsons, you worry that they will conclude they are unlovable and undeserving of her affection. You cannot let this happen, so you’ve decided they will not spend time with her because she is not exerting a healthy influence on them.

It is important that you and your husband act in concert on this. It is understandable why he wants to avoid this conflict with his mother – he has a history with her and he might foresee unpleasant and difficult repercussions. It is hard to predict how Dorothy will react, and depending on her response, you can decide if you want to give her another chance if she convinces you she got the message and can make the changes required.

However, it is possible that this interaction with her will set off a family firestorm in which tempers flare and other family members take sides. You certainly would rather this not happen, but you must be prepared for the possibility. Being out of favor with certain family members is a small price to pay compared to the potential damage to your boys’ senses of well being and self-esteem if their grandmother’s treatment of them goes unchecked. You are correct in deciding to get this “elephant” out of the room, in effect firing her as your kids’ grandmother.

Sadly, Dorothy’s cold and aloof treatment of your boys is not an isolated phenomenon (Googling “toxic grandparents” will affirm this). I share with you the example of a now-adult woman who was similarly treated by her grandmother the way Dorothy is treating your boys. She offers this advice: “The most important thing parents can do in this kind of a situation is help the children understand they are not the problem. There is nothing wrong with them: the offending grandparent has problems and it doesn’t matter what they are. Too often the focus is on the grandparent’s feelings, with everyone trying not to upset her or make her unhappy.

“Rubbish! Protect the children, and put an immediate stop their being publically humiliated by grandparents who turn on their grandchildren because of their own issues. Help children in this situation see all the many others in their lives who love and accept them unconditionally. Thanks to my other grandmother interceding on my behalf and from working with a good therapist, I am able to feel sorry for my grandmother, who was mean and spiteful. I am indifferent towards her now, but as a child living through it I felt unloved, confused, and humiliated.”

I close by reiterating my support for your decision to discontinue all your children’s visits with Dorothy until such time as she stops showing favoritism towards some of her grandchildren and can give all of them the basic love, respect, and attention they deserve from a grandparent.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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