Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Grandmother Shows Favoritism

lonely boy

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.

Read Next | Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Grandparents’ Favoritism Is Upsetting Young Parents

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.

Read Next | Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Older Grandson Favored by Grandmother

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.

to learn about Dr. Gramma Karen’s new book,
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Helping Young Parents and Grandparents
Deal with Thorny Issues

babysitter with baby
Read Next | Hire a Babysitter in the New York Metropolitan Area

Like what you read? JOIN the Mommybites community to get the latest on FREE online classesparenting adviceeventschildcare listingscasting calls & raffles, and our Parents With Nannies Facebook group. SIGN UP NOW!

The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely the blog contributor’s. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. Writers may have conflicts of interest, and their opinions are their own.

Tags: ,

4 thoughts on “Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Grandmother Shows Favoritism

  1. My in laws work in the church and have always been on mine and my husbands case about how we represent the family in the eyes of the community. We respected how they felt and kept our relationship to ourselves. We got married then got pregnant but at the time my sister in law was off at school doing god only knows and ends up pregnant after a failed abortion attempt and now my sister in law and nephews live with them. He is such a spoiled child that is also aggressive and no one will do anything but if my children step out of line even once then they are disciplined and yelled at. It’s very frustrating because my child is truly gifted and picks up on the negative attention and he doesn’t have near the same relationship with my in laws as he does with my parents. I have two other children that are new borns and my in laws have only seen them a handful of times. And anytime that my sister in law has anything to do she drops my nephew and they gladly take him but it’s like pulling teeth to get them to watch my children.

  2. I have been dealing with my in laws showing favoritism for two years to my sister in laws daughter. My sister in law and her daughter live with my husbands parents so her daughter has been around them since she was born. Since we had our son Noah, my sister in law started dating a guy who came into the relationship with two kids of his own and also have all moved in with my husbands parents. My husband has told me since we started dating four years ago that his parents have always favored his sister and no matter what he or she done he always was the one punished and she received no punishment at all. Now that we have a child of our own his mother constantly buys things for his sisters daughter, and her boyfriends kids. And not just small things. Large ticketed items. And our son is lucky to even get a hug. He will go up to my mother and father in law and reach his little hands wanting to be held and they tell him no and then turn around and pick up Alaina. I have wanted to go off for two years because this breaks my heart and I don’t know what to do. As a mother I feel I am the only protection he has and that I shouldn’t bring him over there to have his little feelings hurt. But my husband is so passive he wants to continue our regular visits of abuse on our boy. I say abuse because to me the treatment of noticeable inequality is abuse. He may be two but he knows what is going on. We recently addressed the issue because I had all I can take and there response was that they will always favor and love Alaina more and that we can hopefully get over it and continue to visit. Who says something like that? And why do my sister in laws boyfriends kids even get preferential treatment over Noah. Im so confused. My mom raised five kids and if she spent a dollar on one she spent a dollar on us all. I don’t know what the answer is. As of now Noah and I will not be visiting or going around them. I have to protect my boy from being emotionally scarred. Any reccomendations??

    Christina Gross

  3. What a sad and ugly situation. I also had a grandmother who wreaked a lot of hell by favoring one of her sons (and his family) over the other. This isn’t a legacy anyone should want to leave.

    Karen, can you speak some more about the writer’s other two children, who are biologically related to the toxic grandmother? I assume they’re the younger kids, since this is her second marriage. Should she keep them away, too? I can see pro and con arguments, and would love to know how you would suggest she handle this, and what she says to the two younger kids.

    1. Karen, I would also like to read your response to Jezra about the 2 biological grandchildren. I am in a similar position but my 2 older children (12 and 13 years) are given all the attention, while the little ones from my new marriage (also their biological grandchildren) are left out and overlooked.

      My parents say they have a connection with the older ones from my prior marriage, but haven’t seen the 1 and 2-year old enough to connect with them. They have gone so far as to communicate with my ex in an attempt to see the older 2 children behind my back, then don’t see the problem with that when they get caught.

      If we cut them off until they can treat them all the same, what do we tell the 12 and 13 year old who genuinely like them and want to see them?

      And what steps should the grandparents take before they can see the kids again?

      My husband is furious about all this and I feel stuck in the middle. It is causing a lot of friction in our marriage.

      Please help!

Comments are closed.