Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Son-in-Law Threatens to Keep Grandchildren from Mother-in-Law

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I am very upset. My daughter, Nancy, and her husband, Frank, have three kids under the age of ten. We live near each other so my husband and I see our grandchildren quite often. Frank is arrogant. For example, he has his Ph.D. and he makes sure you never forget it. He is quick to anger and there’s tension in the air when he’s around: Nancy and the kids tiptoe around him, lest they set him off. I’ve seen him blow up at the neighbors as well as at other parents at the kids’ games.

This past weekend we were all having Sunday dinner together. (My husband, a step-grandfather, was playing golf and wasn’t there.) Nancy served a vegetable that was a bit too dry and Frank said to her, “Nancy, the beans are terrible. Even you should be able to get it right.” Nancy hung her head. I said to her, “Honey, the beans are just fine.”

Frank slammed his glass down and said to me, “If you ever correct me again, especially in front of my children, you will never see your grandchildren again.” Somehow I held myself together through the dinner. I am so upset that Frank would threaten me this way. I want to say something to him about his rudeness to me and the disrespectful way he treats Nancy.  My husband – who said it was good thing he wasn’t there, as he probably would have hauled off and let Frank have it – said I should just let it go, that Frank is nasty and will never change.

Based on your description, it sounds like Frank is a bit more than merely nasty. In fact, he may be an adult bully. Of late there has been much attention on bullying among children and teens, but regardless of age, a bully is someone who wants to demean or dis-empower others, someone who is overbearing and intentionally looks to cause discomfort or humiliation to another. A bully typically lacks self-esteem and compensates with arrogance; he/she lashes out in anger. Adult-to-adult bullying, the same as with children, can take many forms: emotional, mental, and physical, or in various combinations, and it can happen person to person or in cyberspace.

It is difficult to ferret out accurate statistics on adult-to-adult bullying because it does not typically get reported unless it is physical, but there are some data. For example, in the workplace generally about one-quarter of employees claim to have been bullied by supervisors or managers. In another study about 80% of teachers polled felt they have been bullied by parents, with 70% of these same teachers claiming they’ve also been bullied by their principals. The usual advice for dealing with adult bullies is: ignore the bully when being bullied; respond to the aggression with aggression (i.e., bully the bully); or just sever the relationship.

At this point in time it is important that you decide what your one major goal is in your relationship with Frank. For example, you could decide your major goal is to stand up to Frank and let him know he cannot intimidate you – in effect, bully him back, a tactic that can work when you don’t care about the relationship or the consequences. Yes, you may feel better as a result, but the reality is that Frank is in the driver’s seat (just where an adult bully wants to be!) and he may well indeed prevent you from seeing your grandchildren. Alas, speaking up for yourself with Frank could result in his cutting off your access to the grandchildren, as wells as causing additional problems for your daughter in her relationship with Frank.

However, if your primary goal is to make sure you and your husband remain in your grandchildren’s lives, then you need to “park” your negative feelings about Frank and focus on what you need to do to assure him you are not a threat to him. The major trigger point for an adult bully to act out is feeling challenged or threatened. If you have it in you, and understandably, perhaps you don’t, you may want to apologize to Frank. You might say something like, “Frank, last week at dinner I upset you when you told Nancy you found the beans too dry. I did not mean to be disrespectful towards you.”

With this statement you are helping Frank see you less as a threat and more as someone who made a mistake with no harm intended. This allows Frank to re-perceive himself as having the upper hand with you, something that is most likely (and sadly) critical to his self-esteem. The benefit to you is that you and your husband can safely resume your roles as welcomed grandparents.

In effect, I am suggesting you filter everything you say and do against this one criterion: Am I in any way giving Frank cause to feel threatened by me? Related to this suggestion I urge you to make sure your husband is with you whenever you will be around Frank. As a matter of a gender consideration, Frank may view your husband as a potential threat he doesn’t care to take on.

If you are concerned that your grandchildren will view you as acquiescing to Frank, I suggest that over time they will come to appreciate that your main concern is always to make sure you and their step-grandfather remain in their lives – that is, you are willing to make sacrifices because of your love for them. Regardless of Frank’s behavior, if you and your husband are unwavering role models for kindness, patience, calmness, and even undeserved respect, you may be helping your grandchildren learn some valuable coping skills to use with a father who can be threatening and unlovable.

Your daughter and grandchildren need you in their lives now, and perhaps even more in the future, depending on some choices Frank makes about his behavior, and choices your daughter may make about their future together. Right now you need to do whatever it takes so that Frank doesn’t feel forced to follow through on his threat to keep you from seeing your grandchildren.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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