Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,
My husband and I have five kids, who mean the world to us. They have always enjoyed each other’s company and have been close.
Recently, my 23-year-old son Michael, married Anna, who is 20. Since high school he has lived away, attending college in another state, and then living in Europe. We have always been close; when he was away, he used to call me several times a week.
We just got back from a family trip to Miami with all five kids and Anna. My husband and I worked hard to save for this trip, and we were so excited to have this fun time together. However, I was shocked on the trip by how insensitive and rude the newlyweds were, mostly toward my husband and me. Anna often pouted to my son quietly if she didn’t get her way; they both were sort of “our way or the highway” about family activities we chose to do.
A few times throughout the trip my son or his wife asked me to quit telling a story about an interesting trip I had taken, cutting me off mid-sentence, telling me they had heard it before, or if I had to answer a business call, they asked me to please wait to talk until we weren’t all in the car together. (I answered two phone calls all week). It really took my husband and me aback how rude they were. They hadn’t ever been like that before. I can tell my other kids were bothered because they asked me if we can travel without them next time.
I am just heartbroken because the way they treated us shocked me to the core. I feel guilty saying this, but it will be a long time before I invite them on another trip. I don’t want to emotionally cut myself off from them, but I don’t know how to handle the way they treated us. I see a huge change in my son, and it breaks my heart.
Here is just a side note as I try to figure out why she might have acted the way she did. Anna’s mom died when she was young, and she was raised by a very amazing, kind, loving, and wonderful stepmother. But I have witnessed each of her four siblings being rather rude to her stepmother.
Do you have any advice for my husband and me?
Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response
I understand your initial reaction of not wanting to spend time with Anna and Michael, but I want to encourage you not to take any kind of an action that can drive you apart. Rather, I am going to suggest you and your husband reach out to Anna and Michael along these lines: “In thinking about our family trip, we observed times that we thought the two of you were impatient or displeased by us. (Provide specific examples, beginning with “When such and such was happening… it seemed as if …”)
If there were things going on that were upsetting to you, we would appreciate you telling us about them. So, please share with us if anything was interfering with you having the best time possible on our family trip.”
I am suggesting this approach for these reasons:
- It puts it on the table that you felt there were times that dynamics between you were not smooth.
- It gives all of you an opportunity to express what was bothering or upsetting you without using potentially pejorative words like “rude” or “insensitive.”
- It positions you and your husband as coming from a place of “help us understand …” rather than one of expressing anger or disappointment.
Further, two suggestions for going forward: First, I urge you to include Anna and Michael in all invitations, rather than to exclude them. Second, based on your experiences with them from the last time together, in the future, when and if they are behaving in ways that are cause for concern, you can in real time say something like, “Whoa. What just happened? Did we say or do something that has upset you? It seems you are impatient … annoyed … (or whatever emotion seems appropriate).” This approach hits the dynamics head on in such a way that there can be a blame-free dialogue.
And finally, I point out that because Anna and Michael are young and newly married, they are working out a lot of new dynamics and behaviors in their relationship. Some of what you and your husband experienced as rude and insensitive behavior may have been them avoiding aspects of their relationship that are troublesome and confusing to them, so they were rechanneling their problems between the two of them onto you and your husband.
In other words, they could put aside looking at trouble spots in the relationship between the two of them by looking outside of themselves. You may recollect times when one of your kids would take out on you, with nastiness or mouthing off, problems they were having with other kids or things going on in their lives. Sometimes it took them awhile to figure out that it wasn’t you, Mom, it really was about something else. Parents can be targets of venting, even from grown children.
Whether there is any merit to my supposition, I hope you and your husband will reach out to Anna and Michael and create a platform for the four of you to emotionally embrace and respect each other. Just as you’re feeling cast aside, this may be the time they need your steadiness and maturity more than ever!
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