Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,
My husband and I have three wonderful grandchildren, ages 7, 9, and 11. Their parents are our son, Louis, and our daughter-in-law, Christine. We all get along great, and because we live only a couple of hours apart, we get to spend lots of time together.
My brother Andy and his wife Abby, live four houses away from us. They have no children. Whenever our grandchildren visit, sometimes for a couple of weeks at a time in the summer, they always enjoy spending time with “Aunt Abby” and “Uncle Andy.” They especially enjoy using their pool. Our grandchildren often visit them, they are always welcome, and they always have a good time.
Here is where we could use your advice. My relationship with my brother Andy has always been less than ideal. I feel he has a hair trigger temper so we can never be sure when something will set him off. His wife, Abby, is very similar in disposition and can also get unpleasant at the drop of a hat. Fortunately, as far as we know, they have always been nice to our grandchildren, and have never had any angry outbursts around them.
A few weeks ago there was an incident that involved my husband and me and Andy and Abby. I do not need to get into the details. Suffice it to say that Andy got verbally and physically abusive toward my husband after my husband said something that most people would consider conversational, and certainly not offensive. Andy was out of control, and in his rage he brought up all kinds of things from the past. If Abby had not physically interceded, I think Andy would have attacked my husband.
We have not talked with Andy and Abby since this incident. In fact, shortly after it happened they left for the winter to go to their vacation home in another state. They did not say goodbye, nor did the ask us to look after their house while they were gone, something they’ve always done. They will be back in a couple of months. Meanwhile, the truth is that we are fine not having them in our lives. Now we don’t have to worry about them erupting without warning.
And this brings us to our problem: what do we do about the grandchildren? They will expect to visit with their Uncle Andy and Aunt Abby when they’re with us. Our son and his wife said we’ll discuss this matter the next time they’re here for a visit, which is in a couple of weeks. Before we talk with them, we’d like your thoughts on this matter.
Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response
It sounds like you and your husband are at peace with not having any kind of relationship with your brother and his wife. From what you’ve described, a break between you and them — be it temporary or permanent — makes sense under the circumstances you’ve described. Going forward, however, I do want to offer some ideas regarding your grandchildren’s future interactions with their great aunt and great uncle.
Your experience raises an issue that many families have had to address: to what extent, if any, should relationships “gone bad” between some family members affect relationships with other family members? With your particular circumstances, I think the answer is going to depend on how your grandchildren’s parents view this situation. Fortunately, you have a good relationship with them, so having open and honest communication will not be an issue.
For example, if your son and your DIL view the incident as something that happened between you four adults and has nothing to do with their children, then their expectation will probably be that their kids will visit alone with Aunt Abby and Uncle Andy, as they have always done. Or, your son and DIL may decide that their kids can visit only when they are present. Either way, this is their call. When your son and DIL are visiting you, then they are on duty and are responsible for their kids’ visits down the street.
But, when the grandchildren stay with you and their parents are not present, you and your husband are loco parentis, Latin for “in the place of a parent.” This means you have the legal functions and responsibilities of a parent. If you are comfortable letting your grandchildren visit your brother and his wife without you being present, as they have been doing, and if your son and DIL are in agreement, well then, you have a plan.
However, if you are uneasy about your grandchildren spending time with Abby and Andy when you are loco parentis, then you get to nix those visits. Hopefully, your son and DIL will abide by your position and not try to convince you to do something that you’re not comfortable with.
Possible Explanations For the Grandchildren
This raises the issue of how do you explain to your grandchildren that they will not be visiting with Andy and Abby when their parents are not around. I think you keep it simple and say that you had a disagreement with Abby and Andy and you’re taking a time out from your relationship with them. (A time out is something most kids understand.) If they’re still visiting with their aunt and uncle when their parents are around, this will probably not be all that upsetting to them. When you’re in charge, just be prepared to plan their days with fun activities, so they do not dwell on how much they are missing the pool down the street.
However, if your son and DIL feel that your experience with Andy and Abby is a red flag and they’d rather not have their kids spend any time with them, then they will have to have their own explanation for the changes, also most likely explained around some sort of disagreement.
When the children are older, depending on how the estrangement plays out, your son and DIL may be more forthcoming with details. The point is that for the present, you, your husband, your son, and DIL need to have your plan and explanations in place for when Abby and Andy return.
The grandchildren will take their lead in how they process any changes in interactions with Abby and Andy from you, your husband, and their parents. If you are calm and accepting — “This is life. Sometimes it is a good idea to take a time out in relationships” — they will probably respond in kind. This idea of a relationship time out acknowledges the reality of your current situation in a healthy way, without public acrimony.
My husband and I agreed that we did not want to get into details with Louis and Christine, so we took your suggestion and simply declared we were taking an adult time out with my brother and his wife. Louis and Christine agreed that they would be responsible for any visits between their children (our grandchildren) with Abby and Andy when they were here. When we have the grandchildren alone, it was agreed that it will be up to us whether they can visit or not.
We are finding a huge decrease in our stress levels just knowing we will not be interacting with Andy and Abby. We did not realize how much anxiety it was causing us anticipating and actually being around them, so the whole ordeal has turned out to be a blessing. We’re both moving on and looking forward to spending time with our inner circle of family and friends.
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