Today’s post diverges slightly from our typical posts about minimalism and our planned move, but it does relate to sculpting our life and fulfilling our dreams. For a long time now we’ve been dealing with toxic grandparents. The grandparents I’m referring to are my daughter’s grandparents, not my own. I want to share our story and then see if anyone has dealt with anything similar.
Our daughter, Faith, is very shy. It takes her an extremely long time to warm up to people she hasn’t seen in a while, even if that “while” has only been a week or two. This is especially true around adults. The shyness is caused by social anxiety, and often results in a mild form of selective mutism. That is where the child is unable to speak even though they would like to be able to.
It is important to understand that her inability to speak to adults and her extreme shyness in social situations isn’t caused by poor discipline or stubbornness. She exhibits signs of selective mutism, such as changing her voice when forced to speak (she will speak in a higher pitch.) She freezes up physically, with arms stiff and head down when in situations where she needs to speak, and her sweet little heart races when in those situations.
Outside of the social anxiety, Faith is a wonderful child. Of course I think so, because I’m her parent, but I’ve interacted with enough other children to make a somewhat unbiased observation. She is in kindergarten, and she is already reading level 1 and 2 books. We are not even half way through the school year and she has already mastered the kindergarten sight words, and her teachers have given her first grade sight words to work on. She is very well behaved. In school they have wristbands to reward children for behavior, and Faith is always at the top of her class.
At home she speaks and interacts without any problem at all. When we are out in public she speaks to my wife and I without any problem. Among kids her own age, once she has grown comfortable with them, which takes much less time than with adults, she talks and plays with them. In school, though she speaks softly, she does speak to the teacher and raises her hand to ask and to answer questions. Her teacher does not see any problems with her.
So, Faith is a good kid that simply doesn’t speak to adults unless necessary, or with some prodding, or after she has had enough time to become comfortable.
We have one set of grandparents that find her shyness to be a personal insult. They believe a child should say hello and give them a big hug upon greeting them. They apparently feel it’s required to have conversation in order to interact with her.
Over the past five years of her life, I have witnessed a few things that were completely unacceptable. The grandfather has made comments on several occasions after being around other kids, saying “that’s how children should be,” implying they should be outgoing. I have witnessed, in our home, this grandparent bribing Faith with cookies or food, saying “you can’t have this until you say hello to me.” I have witnessed at their home, the grandfather tell her she can’t play with any toys until she says hello, this being after we were ignored upon entering because they were busy cooking.
That day of the “no toys until hello” I told this grandparent that is not acceptable and that she was going to play. The grandparent was in a foul mood for the rest of the day, and generally treated everyone poorly all day.
On one occasion our daughter had just learned to ride her bike. Despite her shyness, she is generally pretty good at communicating through performance and play. She was excited to show her grandparents her newly learned skill. The grandparent had intended to show us some of his plants, like he does every time we visit, and when we paused from that to show the bike riding, this grandparent says “you give her too much attention,” and goes back in the house, completely missing the opportunity to share in this milestone achievement.
Recently, a new grandchild of sorts entered the picture. It’s the young daughter of my brother’s fiance. So, not a grandchild by blood, but still entering the family. This child is very outgoing, and the grandparent has been praising her non-stop. Even at a celebratory dinner after Faith’s dance recital, where she performed just as good as every other kids there despite her social anxiety and shyness, the conversation was turned to the other child. Not one nice thing was said about Faith’s performance.
The entrance of the other child seemed to amplify the negativity towards Faith. The other child has even been praised for bad behavior. One example was when she had been taking toys out of Faith’s hands all day, it was said “she is going to be a real go-getter.” Faith is not even complimented for good behavior and this new child is praised for bad behavior.
We had spoken briefly to the grandparents on a couple occasions about their treatment of our daughter. They were usually brief conversations and sometimes ended up in improvement for a very short time, and sometimes in a foul mood for the rest of the day.
A couple of months ago, we decided we had to do something, because we felt we could no longer continue to expose Faith to all the negativity and poor treatment. The advice of several friends trained in or practicing psychology was to cut them off completely. If we lived far away, this would have been easy. We live about an hour away, and they had been inviting us over every other weekend. A complete break would have been awkward and didn’t feel right.
We felt it best to have a discussion with the grandparents to highlight or concerns. Anticipating the “we don’t do stuff like that,” I came prepared with a number of examples, many of which I shared above. I laid it out how Faith is, and that she is introverted by nature, not by choice. I told them that I didn’t want them trying to parent her, because I knew her social anxiety couldn’t just be parented away. My wife, Dream, has a degree in psychology and is certified in behavior modification, so we are working with Faith and have made much progress, and the grandparents trying to parent her shyness away is counterproductive.
We discussed the negative situations, the comparisons, and the lack of positive attention. I made it clear that we wanted Faith to have a relationship with her grandparents. I told them that we could help them communicate with her. Faith communicates very well through play and we offered to help facilitate that.
The results of the conversation were not what we had hoped. I got a call the next day from grandmother saying that grandfather didn’t sleep all night. (Grandfather was actually the root of most of the negativity so the majority of the examples we gave related to him.) She said it wasn’t a good time to have that conversation because she was about to leave town on business. (Note that there was no good time and I did wait until after his birthday had passed.) She also said “you know how he treated his aunt when she disagreed with him.” The result of that was he cut off all contact with the aunt.
We agreed to give it a little time. A good month went by and we didn’t hear anything from the grandparents. On my birthday, grandmother called to wish a happy birthday. She put grandfather on the phone and I attempted to strike up conversation by asking what he’d been up to. He grunted, “nothing,” and handed the phone back to grandmother.
In the years past we had established a tradition of sharing a Halloween event together. We weren’t holding any grudges and really still did want to have Faith’s grandparents as part of our lives, just with less negativity. Grandmother decided to share in the event, but grandfather refused. Funny thing is, by the end of the day, Faith had warmed up to grandmother and was talking away like she does with us at home.
My brother and his fiance invited us to share Thanksgiving dinner at his new apartment. It would be their first Thanksgiving together, and their first in their new apartment. We agreed to go even though we knew it would be awkward with the grandparents there. When we arrived and walked in, we greeted everyone and were introduced to the fiance’s family. Grandfather just sat in his chair and didn’t say anything. He ignored us the entire time we were there.
That reinforced our opinion that we had made the right decision to have a discussion with them even with the possibility of less contact. We saw more of the negative behavior and became even more aware of grandfathers controlling nature. The apartment was small, and it was a very casual buffet style dinner. Dishes covered the dining room table, a side table, and part of the kitchen. Most people got their dish and ate with plates on their laps. Grandfather tried to get everyone (not us, but everyone else) to belly up to the dinning room table that was serving as the buffet table. Then he scoffed when someone said that the guys were eating on the couch because they were watching football while they ate. I could tell he was irritated because that wasn’t his idea of how a Thanksgiving dinner should be served and eaten.
Grandmother did actually make an effort to chat with us, and to interact with Faith. This surprised us a little because she is usually the obedient wife and so we’re guessing there may have been an argument when they got home.
Now we are a little unsure of what to do. Grandmother seems to want to remain in our life, although she hasn’t called us to spend any time together like she used to do. Grandfather doesn’t want anything to do with us if it’s not on his terms. We are tempted to just cut them off completely at this point, since the relationship continues to be toxic, and as long as it remains this way it causes conflict in our own home since it’s an unresolved situation.
If it weren’t for grandmother seeming to want a relationship, it would be a no brainer to sever our ties. Although grandmother does seem to want a relationship with her granddaughter, it is difficult when the controlling grandfather doesn’t. The more we think about it, the more it feel like we should just cut them all of our lives completely.
What would you do in this situation? Have you ever had to deal with something like this?
Toxic Grandparents Series:
- Dealing with Toxic Grandparents – 11/28/2011
- Christmas with the Toxic Grandparents – 1/4/2012
- Toxic Grandparents Update – 7/31/2013
- Toxic Grandparents Update and a Diagnosis for Faith – 4/22/2013