In my Questions and Answers post a couple of people were curious to know the latest news on the toxic grandparents. One commenter, Karen, mentioned that they were her least favorite posts and I tend to agree with that. Karen also asked what his side would be, and I’ll share what I know of that today.
These are my least favorite posts as well, but I think they serve a purpose. When we first started dealing with the issue of toxic grandparents, it was hard to find real examples. Many people said they just dealt with it and tried to ignore the behavior. That didn’t feel right to us – to ignore behavior that is hurtful to your child seems neglectful. We dug deeper and searched more, and gradually we found tidbits of stories on forums. These tidbits told of people that had to remove the toxic individuals from their life. It was reassuring to hear from people that had been in similar situations, and that’s what I hope to provide here. I want to reassure you that toxic relationships can and do happen within families, and there is something you can do about it.
This is a long post, so grab a cool beverage and settle in for a year worth of change. We had some good news during the last year, so we’ll have some good parts in addition to the usual sad parts that come when discussing toxic relationships.
A Brief Synopsis of the Toxic Behavior
It has been nearly a year since I last discussed this, so I’ll briefly recap for anyone that is new to this saga. In August of 2011 I sat down with my mother and father to discuss father’s treatment of our daughter Faith (their granddaughter.) He had a few demands that were causing visible stress with Faith. To begin with he demanded a hug and a hello every time we met. That sounds innocent and normal, but Faith was clearly and visibly stressed every time this was demanded of her. Her little heart would race and she would stiffen up, barely able to move. It was beyond what good parenting could correct, there was more to it. Although we didn’t know what this was at the time, we knew we had to curb these stressful situations. Unfortunately, this was a deal breaker for grandfather, as a hug and hello were musts in his book.
This was the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. The real issue is that Faith would not talk to him. I’ll share the reasons she wouldn’t speak, but for now, let me share some of the things he did to us and Faith. On several occasions he attempted to bribe her to get her to speak. One time we caught him telling her, “You can’t have this cookie until you say hi to me.”
The worst time was when he offered her a teddy bear. Faith loves teddy bears, and even though she didn’t talk to grandfather, she did like him. He called Faith over, pulled a big teddy bear off the shelf, and asked her, “Do you want this teddy bear.” She was unable to respond verbally or physically, but it was clear that she did as she stood there admiring it. When she didn’t respond, he put the bear back on the shelf, turned out the light and left the room. Faith stood their heartbroken with tears welling in her eyes. Even now as I retell this story my own tears begin to well. It was so hurtful to a young child that was unable to express her desires.
There were numerous other occasions where the poor treatment continued, and you can read through our Toxic Grandparents series to see more examples.
In the summer of 2012, and after my last Toxic Grandparent post, we found some information that explained why Faith was the way she was. We also visited with a psychiatrist, who confirmed our findings. She was diagnosed with Selective Mutism (SM).
The symptoms she experienced exactly matched SM and Social Anxiety Disorder. When in a position where she needed to speak, she would freeze up, her body would stiffen, and her heart would race. She would stand fixed, unable to speak. When asked about these situations, she would tell us that she wanted to talk but she couldn’t.
She was physically unable to speak in certain situations. One of these situations was clearly around the toxic grandparents. Their expectations and demands of her to speak only made the SM worse.
We also saw this behavior around other kids and around other adults. Individuals with SM have a type of internal list that is kept. On this list are people that are ok to talk to and people that aren’t. There are few exceptions once the list is made. One of the best ways to never get an SM child to talk to you is to say, “I’m going to get you to talk to me one day.” Her cheer coach did this and Faith didn’t speak to her the entire season.
On the okay to talk to list were me (Freedom) and her mother (Dream), her grandmother on Dream’s side, one uncle on Dream’s side, and her cousins. One of the things we noticed that would get people on the talking list was to interact with Faith through play. Anyone that played with her was moved from the Do-not-talk-to list over to the okay-to-talk-to list. The one thing that the grandmother and uncle had in common is that they are very playful. Uncle had Faith chatting and giggling on one of our vacations together because he was so playful with her and the other kids.
We noticed this communication through play early on, and offered this to the toxic grandparents as an alternative to talking. On a couple of occasions we shuttled grandmother into Faith’s playroom for some playtime as soon as they arrived for a visit. When we did this Faith was more comfortable and although she didn’t talk she was able to feel less anxious.
On the day of the big talk, I explained the communication through play. Grandmother seemed interested, but Grandfather had already shut down by this point and sat there unmoved.
The BBC did a good video series on SM. I recommend you view this video to get a very clear idea of what we were going through. While you’re watching, notice the grandfather that will do anything to help improve the situations. Toxic grandfather is the complete opposite, and is unwilling or unable to compromise his needs to help Faith. I get teary eyed while watching this and imagining the struggles that Faith encounters.
With the diagnosis of SM, we were able to access a wider array of material from which to educate ourselves.
Actually, I need to take a step back for a minute. One of the things we did before the diagnosis was to make sure Faith had an appropriate teacher for First Grade. Her kindergarten teacher was loud and overbearing, which is the completely wrong approach for Faith (and as it turned out for SM children in general.) We used the word “shy” to describe her to the principle. She said that they don’t like to label kids so she called her “sensitive” instead. (We laughed to ourselves as “sensitive” is still a label.) The principle agreed to place her with a teacher that would be more appropriate.
Later that summer, after the diagnosis, we learned that SM children greatly benefited when moved up in grade with their best friend(s). Dream went back to the principle and requested this. With the diagnosis of SM it was relatively easy to get her placed with her two best friends.
The psychiatrist recommended that Faith start seeing a psychologist. We were open to this, but were unable to find one experienced in SM within an hour drive. We tried one that wasn’t experienced in SM, but her approach was completely wrong. It was clear she didn’t research SM before seeing Faith. The main issue right off the bat was that she spoke loudly. She was loud like you might need to be with a child that’s not paying attention. This doesn’t work with SM, and we didn’t return after the first session.
This is one of the challenges we face. Most treatment professionals primarily deal with attention deficit disorders (ADD and ADHD.) The techniques for those children are quite different from those with working with an SM child, and unless they research SM before working with Faith, their approach can be counterproductive.
I should share at this point that Dream has a degree in psychology and is certified as a Behavior Therapist. She is fully capable of researching treatments and working with Faith. Of course there are advantages and disadvantages to treating your own child. In our case we felt this was the best course of action.
After much research and deliberation we decided to supplement treatment with medication. The psychiatrist gave us this option with no pressure one way or the other. It’s always a tough decision to medicate a child, and we didn’t take this option lightly. With the new school year fast approaching we decided to start her on Fluoxetine (Prozac).
This would reduce her anxiety so that she could learn to overcome her fears and develop her ability to speak and socialize. She was on a very low dose when she started First Grade, but it was enough to allow her to speak to the kids in her class. We were so relieved that she was able to talk at school. Prior to this, she would only speak to one or two kids in class and only in whispers.
As the year progressed, the Psychiatrist upped the dose to a level where she is now able to function verbally and socially just like all the other kids her age.
Along with the medication we worked on our own treatment plan. When Faith was learning to read we used the Hooked on Phonics program which included a sticker chart. She loved her sticker chart, so we came up with a sticker chart for talking. It was a grid chart with rows of talking goals and columns for stickers.
It worked great! She would study her chart every day and find the goals that needed more stickers. We had simple tasks like “Say Hi” and “Say Bye” as well as some harder tasks like “order your food at a restaurant.”
In addition to the sticker chart we enrolled her in cheerleading. This worked great because she really wanted to do it. On the therapy side it gave her a chance to vocalize without being the center of attention. In a crowd of other girls she could yell and chant and not feel like everyone had their eyes on her. She was slow to get started but after a few weeks she really got into it. She practiced her cheers at home and gradually got louder and louder as she cheered in practices and at football games.
Toxic Grandparents Reenter the Picture
At some point we shared the SM diagnosis with grandmother. She seemed sympathetic. My brother had ADD as a kid, and in the early 1980s there wasn’t a lot known about it. She struggled with diagnosis and treatment much as we were doing with Faith. She understood what we were going through. The problem was my father didn’t deal well with my brother’s ADD, not seeing that as an excuse for his behavior. He seemed the same way with Faith.
A short time later, grandmother tells us that grandfather has been reading everything he can on the Internet about SM. While that may be true, we were skeptical that it would change anything with him given past experience with his own son. Grandmother said they would both like to try another visit together and invited us to a family gathering to celebrate grandfather’s birthday.
Had they really understood, they would not have requested Faith’s first visit in more than a year be a big family gathering. It’s just too overwhelming to be around so many unfamiliar people. We declined that invitation saying that it would be too overwhelming. Faith had been making really good progress and we didn’t want to do anything to set that back.
Instead we suggested the visit the following weekend and we could do something fun with Faith. We gave Faith a few activities to choose from and she chose mini-golf and dinner at a local buffet place.
When the day arrived, we welcomed the grandparents into our home, and I approached each with a hug. Grandfather’s first words that day were, “I thought we weren’t hugging anymore.” I calmly replied, “I still like hugs, but Faith can choose for herself whether or not she wants to hug.” He didn’t say anything further but kept a sour expression on his face.
Faith had a great time at mini-golf. She doesn’t play by the rules, but rather hits the ball the best she can and then picks it up and drops it in the features. She likes to watch it drop in a tunnel and pop out near the hole. Basically, she’s just being a kid and having fun in her own way.
Grandfather was visibly disturbed that she wasn’t playing by the rules. He really didn’t speak much the entire time, not like he normally would. This continued at dinner where he didn’t talk and sat with a sour expression. He played a little with Faith at dinner, and we were hopeful that he was making an effort.
Thanksgiving with the Toxic Grandparents
The next visit was an invitation for Thanksgiving Dinner. We were still hesitant to accept an invite to a large family gathering, but we decided to give it a try. When we arrived, grandmother came out to greet us as she always does, and we began gathering our potluck dishes from the car. At this point grandfather came halfway out, stood for a moment, and then went back inside. I’m not sure what he was expecting as we gathered our dishes from the car, maybe he wanted us to run up with a hug and a hello. I really don’t know what he was thinking at that time, but he obviously refused to come meet us at the car as he usually does.
When we got inside we said hello and he stood with his back to us. We proceeded inside, got Faith some toys to play with and sat down to chat with grandmother.
Brother, Fiancé, and her two kids arrived shortly after (late as always, which is another of grandfather’s pet peeves that is now strangely overlooked.) He nearly ran outside to greet them and help them gather their things from the car. The difference was obvious. We knew at this point that he hadn’t changed at all, and could see that had decided to not make any effort. One of his favorite phrases when talking to my mother about any number of random people was “you shouldn’t give them the satisfaction.” We felt as if this now applied to us.
Dinner gave us a bit of a chuckle as the ridiculousness of the situation settled in. He had set one of the kid’s chairs next to him, for his favorite daughter of my brother’s fiancé. She’s outgoing and craves attention. Grandfather favors outgoing children and it’s clear with this child. So the funny thing was that outgoing child wanted to sit next to Faith. Grandfather told her “no, your seat is here.” He repeated this as she attempted to drag the chair to the other side of the table. Outgoing child didn’t accept his answer and mustered up all her strength to drag her chair over to Faith. He finally relented as all eyes were on him.
During the dinner grandfather got out his camera and took about 30 pictures of outgoing child and one or two of Faith. He didn’t even get Faith’s attention, he just snapped one or two while she was eating.
After dinner, grandfather got out some bubbles and asked fiancé to go inside and get her kids. Nothing was mentioned to us or to Faith. They went outside to blow bubbles and we didn’t even know about this little post dinner event until after the fact.
Faith decided she wanted to go out and swing, and so we headed out and grandfather was already there with the other two kids. After a time of pushing Faith I went inside to start gathering our things. When I came back out grandfather was giving Faith the roughest swing pushing I have ever seen. It reminded me of an angry toddler that was told he had to do something he didn’t want to do. At that point we said our goodbyes and headed home.
Christmas – not again – no way no how
Can you believe it? Grandmother invited us over for Christmas. Last Christmas the grandfather’s favoritism of the other kids was rampant. He even said to the other kids, in front of Faith, that “we must really love you.” After he proved at Thanksgiving that he wasn’t willing to try in the least to improve his relationship with Faith (and actually moved in the opposite direction) we told grandmother that we would not be coming to visit at Christmas.
Instead we invited her and my other brother (the one without the fiancé and kids) to our place a few days before Christmas. We exchanged gifts and went to our favorite Mexican restaurant for dinner. This was actually one of the best Christmas visits we’ve ever had with them. There was no stress and no expectations. We got together, had some fun, enjoyed some relaxed conversation and shared a meal together.
Easter – playing second fiddle
At this point I think we are feeling a bit jaded with the whole situation. We saw Grandmother briefly around Faith’s birthday. We played min-golf at a different course. Since then we hadn’t heard much from her. Dream has been sending pictures from time to time. Since we removed the family from Facebook, this has been our way of keeping her up to date with Faith’s adventures.
As Easter was approaching, grandmother emailed Dream and asked if we could get together. She had some Easter gifts for Faith and she wanted to bring them by. We told her that we were planning to attend a local Easter egg hunt on the Saturday of Easter weekend, and that we would like to invite her to join us for the event.
She replied that she was getting together with Brother, Fiancé, and her two kids on Saturday, and she was flying out of town for work on Easter Sunday.
We didn’t want to make time on the weekend before Easter since we were busy moving to a new apartment, painting Faith’s room, and all the pre and post tasks associated with moving. We ended up telling her we’d have to get together after she got back from her trip.
We got together after grandmother returned and recovered from her work related travel.
Thoughts on the Toxic Grandparents at this point
Dream has been taking Faith to her psychiatrist appointments. During this time she has discussed the toxic grandfather, and the psychiatrist is fully supportive of us removing him from our lives. She said it’s likely that grandfather has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Dream, with her background in psychology, has long told me that his behavior was narcissistic. After reading about it, it certainly describes grandfather and his behaviors.
When I step back as a more neutral observer and look back over the course of grandfather’s life, I can see more clearly how well this diagnosis fits. He’s unable to take criticism, exaggerates and retells his success stories, needs constant attention, and has trouble keeping healthy relationships. He has no friends and my mother and my brothers are his only source of communication. Basically we’re the only ones he hasn’t run off with his behavior. Well, he’s now run us off, but my mother and brothers still stick around. He often belittles my mother’s choice of friends and I’ve heard many stories of how he can’t stand them or their husbands. I’ve also heard an endless number of stories how someone he worked with “wasn’t worth a damn” or “didn’t know anything,” and how he could do the job so much better. He was good at his job, so in some cases this may have been true, but the sheer number of times this came up makes the narcissism show through.
The possibility of Narcissistic Personality Disorder could give us pause to think. If he suffers from one condition and Faith from another, why should Faith be treated good while he is treated bad? The difference is in the treatment of others. While Faith being unable to speak is unsettling to others, it’s not inherently hurtful. The treatment by grandfather on the other hand is hurtful, especially to a little girl that is struggling to understand the poor treatment. We can’t allow him to treat her as if she’s broken. She deserves better than that.
Additionally, Faith is working to improve herself and overcome SM, with lots of love and support from her parents. Grandfather is making no effort to change, improve, or curb any of his actions to be supportive or even caring.
This whole situation has put grandmother in a difficult spot. We realize this, but our primary focus must be on Faith and her wellbeing. Grandmother loves her granddaughter and wants to have a relationship, but grandfather makes this extremely difficult for her. The psychiatrist mentioned that she is unable to stand up to him without him making her life miserable. I believe this is true. It really puts her in a conflicted position. Her views are often clouded by grandfather’s ideas of how he/they should be treated by us.
We do wonder how we should view grandmother and her position in this. Is she just a victim of grandfathers overbearing ways, or does she bear some responsibility as well. There is really nothing she can do short of leaving him completely, and nobody is advocating that. As long as she is with him, she has to give in to his demands, even when that impacts what she wants. At least she still has some freedom to come and visit as long as grandfather has nothing else planned. We’re still working through the idea of her being a victim, so we’re not sure how that will impact our future decisions. It’s tough to decide when grandfather’s influence shows through in her conversation and actions.
Toxic Grandfathers position
Someone mentioned in the comments of my Q&A post that they wondered what grandfathers side of the story is. It’s a valid question and I’ll share what I know of it from what grandmother has told us.
First of all, grandmother told me that our Big Talk came at a bad time. I agree with this. We were at the end of our ropes with them and needed to get the issues out in the open. We knew timing was an issue with his birthday approaching. We waited until after his birthday, and ended up doing it in the week after his birthday. This ended up also being a few days before my mother was leaving for a week on international travel for work.
I didn’t realize the impact this discussion would have on grandfather. My plan was to discuss some of the issues, give some examples of the poor treatment, and recommend some approaches that might work better. This is exactly what I did, but clearly grandfather was deeply hurt by my examples of poor treatment. The thing is, the talk would have had zero impact without those examples so they had to be included.
Grandmother has also told me that he’s done plenty of good things for us as well. I agree with this and never argued this point. They have both done many good things for us. The problem was never the good things, it was the bad things. Good things don’t automatically negate bad things, rather each stands on its own merit. Bad things that need to be addressed have to be looked at separately from the good that they’ve done. There are many examples in history of leaders that did great things while also exacting great evil. The good just doesn’t wipe out the bad.
Given what I now know about Narcissism, and based on past experience growing up in the household, I am fairly certain that he places all the blame on us. I’m sure we are blamed for only looking at the bad things, for not parenting our daughter well enough, and for causing the rift in the family.
Throughout the duration of these events, Dream and I have been open to resolving things. We have been friendly and not held a grudge. He’s not open to any fix. I suspect the only fix he would accept is if we offered a full apology for everything we have done and to go back to the way things were, including his expectations of us and the subsequent poor treatment. This is something we cannot do.
How is Faith Today?
As I wrap up, I’d like to bring this back around to the positive. Faith is doing great. The combination of the Fluoxetine and the work we’ve been doing with her has resulted in a well-adjusted young lady who chats it up with her friends, gives presentations in front of her class, and raises her hand to answer questions from her teacher.
Dream often pushes her gently to expand her comfort zone, and Faith surprised us recently when she was playing at a local bounce house place. Faith got thirsty from all the bouncing. Dream, talking like it was no big deal and perfectly normal, said to her, “Go to the counter and ask for a glass of water.” Faith walked right up to this complete stranger and asked for a drink. This is a HUGE step for someone with SM.
Another recent development is that she is answering questions asked by adults. She warmed up to talking to her peers faster than she warmed up to talking to adults. Lately she’s begun to answer questions from adults like, “What’s your name?”, “How old are you?” and “Did you have fun?” This was another big step for her. It’s taken her nearly a year to get comfortable with this. Even with the medication suppressing the anxiety it has taken practice and encouragement to reach this milestone.
She came home from school one day and told us that she was really popular at school. Now that she can talk, her friendly loving nature shines through. She’s had her own challenges to face as she started talking more. Some of her friends liked it when she was the quiet one, and began treating her poorly as her popularity grew among her peers. Maybe they were feeling left out as she grew her circle of friends, maybe there was some jealousy, or maybe there were other reasons, but whatever the reason Faith handled it well.
She is still friendly towards everyone, but distances herself from anyone that treats her poorly. Basically she doesn’t give attention to anyone that is behaving poorly in order to gain attention. (I know a number of parents that haven’t learned this one yet.)
We are very proud of the effort she has put in to find her voice and become comfortable using it.
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