Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Grandmother Worries about Other Grandmother’s Favoritism


I am the proud grandmother of four lovely girls, ages 8, 6, 4 and 2. The oldest, Faith, is not biologically related, but I fell in love with her when my son and her mom were together. They broke up but I continue to see her. Faith doesn’t know that I am not her biological grandmother, nor does she know that my son, Paul, is not her biological father.

Paul is the father of six-year-old Milana. Sally, my son’s ex-girlfriend, is Faith’s and Milana’s mother. I have both Faith and Milana every weekend. (My four- and two-year-old grandchildren are my son’s daughters from two separate mothers. I have a good relationship with both these moms. My son does not have good relationships with any of the moms of his children.)

The issue is with Sally’s mother, Bonita, the other grandmother. About a year ago I had a conversation with Bonita about her showing favoritism toward Faith. Milana complained that Bonita wasn’t showing her affection and only bought clothes and gifts for Faith.
Lately, I’ve noticed that Faith is always sporting new clothes and shoes, while Milana is wearing Faith’s old clothes. Last week Milana told me that Grandmother Bonita only buys clothes for Faith and the two other grandchildren she has (neither of whom I’ve met). I told Milana to talk with her mom about this, as her mom is the only one who can stop this. Milana did talk to her mother and her mother told her to stay away from Bonita. Milana said, “Anyway, my mommy buys me clothes.” I could see the hurt in her eyes.

In addition, I’ve been noticing that Faith treats her sister as a second-class citizen: she refuses to hold Milana’s hand and is constantly making negative comments about her. I won’t allow Faith to speak negatively to her sister in my house, but I wonder what goes on at Bonita’s house when she has them when Sally is at work. (Sally got evicted so she and her four children moved in with Bonita.)
So it appears that the conversation I had last year with Bonita didn’t work and I need to talk to her again. What can I say that will have a lasting effect? What is ironic is that Bonita went through a similar situation with her own mother. Her mother remarried and had children by her second husband, and favored all but Bonita. Bonita was given hand-me-downs, was shunned and made to feel not part of the family, so I don’t understand how she can in turn treat her own granddaughter the same way.
Please advise, as I cannot sleep at night thinking about how my granddaughter feels.

Although you describe complicated family dynamics with many intertwined threads, if we keep the focus on your granddaughter Milana and her feeling unloved and unworthy by Grandmother Bonita, I can offer some straightforward advice.

In answer to your specific question, “What can I say [to Grandmother Bonita] that will have a lasting effect?” my answer is: Nothing. You informed Bonita of Milana’s feelings, and aside from possibly feeling resentment toward you, she chose not to make any changes. Milana’s mother’s advice for Milana was to “stay away” from Grandmother Bonita, so you realistically won’t get any support from her. And finally, your son is not in a position to have any influence.

That leaves you. You are and will continue to be a most important person in Milana’s life. Many adults describe a “go-to grandparent” who made a huge, for-the-better difference in their lives. For example, in an earlier column I wrote about grandparent favoritism, a woman who felt unloved by one of her grandmothers, as does your Milana, advises: “The most important thing . . . 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… 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  [italics added] and from working with a good therapist, I am able to feel sorry for my grandmother, who was mean and spiteful. I am indifferent toward her now, but as a child living through it I felt unloved, confused, and humiliated.”

I want to offer some specific advice to you as Milana’s go-to grandmother: First, you need to regularly remind her that she is a kind, lovable, and good person who deserves love and respect. You can say: “Yes, I can understand why you feel that Grandmother Bonita isn’t as loving toward you as she seems to be toward her other grandchildren. I can’t explain it. I just know that you are a kind, lovable, and wonderful girl. If she doesn’t see you that way, well, that’s kind of sad, and I feel sorry for her. That’s her problem, not yours.”

Second, you can level the “shopping and buying” playing field whenever possible. For example, when Grandmother Bonita makes purchases of clothes and other things for Faith but not for Milana, you can duplicate the purchases for Milana. You can say, “Faith is enjoying her new outfit. Let’s get you one, too.” When you have the girls staying with you, you can take the girls shopping together so that both Faith and Milana can appreciate that you treat them equally.

Doing these two things – that is, help Milana feel loved, supported, and special by you – may help dilute her feeling hurt and rejected by Grandmother Bonita. As I said, your extended family situation is complex and you are limited in what you can change or influence. The one area where you do have some control and influence is in your relationships with Milana and Faith.

Update: Four Weeks Later  
I have great news! We followed one of your suggestions. My grown daughter Evelyn and I first treated Faith and Milana to ice cream and then we all went shopping. They were treated the same: Each girl received a pair of shoes of their liking, socks, shirts, and a pair of pants. It was a fun time for all of us. Both girls adore Evelyn, who is kind and loving to them.
This shopping incident has caused a major shift in Bonita’s attitude. Since that time Faith has not been sporting new clothes and things are getting better between Faith and Milana. As sisters there is always something to fight about, but the fighting is different. It is no longer the put downs or condescending remarks.

Just a few minutes ago, Bonita called me to say how happy Faith and Milana are about tomorrow’s dance at school. Evelyn volunteered to take Milana to the school event – I am working and cannot take her and Grandmother Bonita cannot, either, because she has the other children to take care of. Bonita mentioned how nice it is that family can do this for one another. It seems Evelyn and I are setting an example by treating both girls the same and Grandmother Bonita notices it.

It is almost a miracle! 

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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