Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Should I Let My Daughter Spend Time with My Abusive Mother?


My childhood was fraught with emotional, psychological, and physical abuse by my mother. She was a daily drunkard for most of those years. Although sober for many years, she has been a pill abuser off and on. My father knew what was going on but never intervened.

My daughter Rachel was born in 2005 and since then I have struggled to figure out what, if any, relationship I should facilitate between Rachel and her grandmother, who lives near us. Over the years my husband and I worked out a visitation schedule that we were comfortable with. We visit her every year in the week before Christmas and we invite her to our home every Easter Saturday to paint eggs with Rachel.

This has worked well for the last six years, or so, but even those twice annual visits have become increasingly painful. My mother does all the talking and doesn’t ask any of us how we are doing (including Rachel). Lately she talks at length about the abuse she suffered as a child, expecting pity, even though she did the same things to me, and much worse. It makes my blood boil. I know things would be better between us if she apologized for all the horrible things she did. My father apologized to me on his deathbed and I forgave him.

Do I suck it up for a couple of hours twice a year just so my daughter can know her grandmother in some capacity?  Do I cut her off altogether? Or do I try and give her some sort of ultimatum? I imagine saying something like this to her, “Mom, I love you and I’m open to having an ongoing, adult relationship with you but it absolutely requires that we share honestly about our shared past.”

Fortunately, Rachel has other grandparents who are just wonderful. I really want to do the right thing here, but I’m not sure what that is.

Apologies and Forgiveness

It sounds like the critical decision point you’re at is more about you than your daughter: do you want to continue seeing your mother for a few hours twice a year, or do you want to see her even less, or not at all. I want to suggest that one of the most important points you make about the difficult and sad childhood you experienced at the hands of your abusive mother and your detached father is, “My father apologized to me on his deathbed and I forgave him.” Research indicates that many grown children who were victims of abuse need their abusers to ask them for forgiveness as a way of proving that they, the child, didn’t deserve to be so harshly mistreated.

In other words, it is not unusual for an abused child to feel at various times, “If I weren’t a bad child, I would not have been abused.” Therefore, when an abuser asks for forgiveness, this says to the abused child that the cause of the abuse is about the parent’s problems, and not about a child’s behavior. Whether the forgiveness is granted or not, the mere request for it can be a transforming and emotional lifesaver to an abuse victim.

However, as pointed out in a New York Times article, “ . . . many adult children of abusers have never heard a word of regret from their parent or parents. People who have the capacity to ruthlessly maltreat their children tend toward self-justification, not shame . . . there doesn’t seem to be any acknowledgement of guilt on the part of the parent for neglecting to meet their most basic responsibilities.”

From what you’ve described, it seems that if you are going to continue to have contact with your mother, then you need her to acknowledge and take responsibility for her abuse of you, in effect, apologize. This acknowledgment has not been forthcoming; in fact, what she has given you is justification and her plea that you empathize with her for the abuse she suffered as a child.


One immediate option is for you to put the question to her directly: “Do you want to apologize to me for being an abusive mother?” However, there is a downside to this direct approach, as expressed by a victim: “Demanding an apology is an exercise in futility. The person apologizing will likely resent having to do so, and you will never feel satisfied since you will doubt its sincerity”. Other victims have similarly questioned the sincerity of deathbed requests for forgiveness from abusive parents.

I think you may find the comments of author Laura Davis, herself an abuse victim, relevant and helpful to your situation: “Many survivors get to a stage where they accept that there will be no change [as with their abusive parents acknowledging their abuse]. They put strong boundaries in place around what they will and won’t tolerate, they have learned to protect themselves and they choose to maintain some contact with abusive parents – but this time on the survivor’s terms . . . I have come to see what I can only describe as a beautiful and extraordinary grace. These survivors accept the flaws of abusive parents, and are able to show kindness – but no longer at their own expense . . . I still owe it to myself to have strict boundaries with her.” Other abuse victims have decided to sever all ties with their abusive parents, and have never looked back.

As you decide what role, if any, you want your mother to play in your life, or that of your daughter, just be assured that whatever decision you make should reflect the reality of your situation and your feelings, and not be based on hopes and wishes, such as your mother apologizing to you. Most important, you need to be mindful that any decisions involving your mother do not in any way re-traumatize you.

If you do decide to let Rachel visit with your mother, I urge you to take and keep control of every aspect of the visit: you visit at your mother’s apartment so you can easily leave at any time; you bring things related to Rachel as topics of conversation, such as art projects, her report card, pictures of her involved in various activities. Most important, if your mother starts making self-pitying and inappropriate comments, you immediately shut them down by saying, “We’re here to get you caught up on Rachel’s life. That’s what we want to talk about.” Say it as many times as necessary.

A final observation: it sounds as if your daughter has the benefit of having loving and emotionally-healthy grandparents in her life, and perhaps does not need your mother in her life as much as you may need the idea of your mother being in her life.

Update: After Our Holiday Visit  

I can’t thank you enough for your help with this. Honestly, when I came to you with this dilemma I thought I already knew my choices. I thought you would either tell me that forgiveness was the only way, and that regardless of my feelings it was my responsibility to let my daughter get to know her grandmother; or that considering the situation, it was necessary to cut off all contact with my mother in order to preserve my own sense of well-being.  

Instead what you offered were tools to change the dynamic of the visits, and a new perspective on why I may choose to continue these twice-annual get-togethers. The idea that we have enough love in our own family that we can show kindness to my mother was a revelation. I was always so caught up on the word ‘love’ when it came to her. “Does she love me?  Did she ever?  How can someone who says she loves me treat me in the ways she has?  Do I love her?  What does that mean?”

These were questions that took me around in circles. When you offered the idea of showing her kindness it was such a relief. Kindness is something I can show to anyone, and it is something I am happy to model for my daughter in all relationships, broken or not.

Also, the practical advice of taking control of the conversation was entirely successful. My husband and daughter made almost a game out of it — let’s not let Nana start one of her long and sad stories!  I found that instead of sitting like a martyr with my jaw clenched (until I’d invariably burst out with some sort of terse reprimand), I happily chatted about things in my own life.  

I was careful not to offer subjects where her response could be inflammatory, but instead talked about our dog, Rachel’s school, vacation plans, etc.  I have never been so chatty in my life! And it worked like a charm.  She never had the chance to get maudlin, and I left there feeling happy (and a little bit victorious, I must say).  My husband and daughter were delighted with the way the visit played out, and for the first time ever, I wasn’t exhausted when we left.

With these tools and new perspective we have decided to continue seeing her twice a year, and I can honestly say I feel good about it.

Thanks again!

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

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