Parenting for the perplexed | Grandparents caught in a tight spot

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Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Her website is Send questions through her Facebook page, Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale, or via [email protected].

Thanks for the helpful column about yelling (“Yelling at my kids: Help me to stop!” March 21), but we have a different problem related to this situation. Our 7- and 9-year-old grandchildren tell us that their mom (our former daughter-in-law, with whom we never had a good relationship, as hard as we tried) is always yelling at them. When she is not yelling, she is a very engaging, enthusiastic and loving mom (and, yes, she’s been getting counseling for years). The children comment about how peaceful our home is and that we handle and resolve problems so amicably (not their word). How can we, as grandparents, help the kids? Obviously, we don’t want to say or do anything insulting to their mother. Rather, we’d like to subtly offer the grandkids ways to cope. Please help us, and other grandparents in our shoes. — Walking on Eggshells in Larkspur

Dear Walking on Eggshells: I am so glad to hear from you! As a grandparent, you obviously have a very delicate situation on your hands. Most of my columns are addressed to parents, though I have had many people come up to me at Jewish community events and, after they say “Where were you 30 years ago?” they tell me that they send my columns to their kids. So let me correct this and offer this column for grandparents, aunts, uncles and other special adults in children’s lives.

Your situation is especially thorny because the rapport with your former daughter-in-law has never been good. You also don’t say anything about your son’s relationship with his kids, his ex-wife or you, for that matter. If he is involved with the kids and has a halfway decent co-parenting partnership with his ex-wife, he is the key to any possibility of change. He would do well to start by asking his ex-wife to undertake co-parenting training/work with a therapist or coach. He’d best broach this by saying that he needs some help and specify one or two parenting dilemmas he’d like to address. In the course of such professional support the yelling can be addressed as well. If the relationship is too fraught for this course of action, I would expect that there’s no way you could talk this through with the mother in a productive way either.

Remember that she is your former daughter-in-law but will always be the mother of your grandchildren. Your first priority is to protect your relationship with the kids. So just swallow hard and be there for your grandkids when you have them. Be ever so careful never to badmouth their mom.

That said, you do want to, as you say, “subtly offer the grandkids ways to cope.” I would suggest the following:

Never forget that visiting grandparents is a bit of a trip to fantasyland — all sweetness and joy. It should stay that way, but it can’t (and shouldn’t) be like that even with the most wonderful, calm, consistent parents. Setting limits and expectations, enforcing family rules and chores, and implementing consequences all require parents to sometimes be “the bad guys,” while grandparents get to be good all the time.

When your grandkids comment about how peaceful it is at your house, show them that you appreciate it but also let them know that when a person gets to your age — with more experience and less pressure — it’s much easier.

When they talk about their mom yelling, tell your grandchildren something like: “I know it is hard/sad/upsetting for you, especially when you see that we try so hard not to yell. We also did that when your dad was your age. We succeeded a lot of the time, but not always. Some parents do yell, some a lot. Usually, they don’t like it. I bet your mom doesn’t either. But they don’t know how else to get their kids to do what they’re supposed to. I know you would do what your mom wants you to even if she didn’t yell. Maybe you could tell her that in some way.”

If they seem responsive to the suggestion of saying this to their mom, brainstorm together about how to let mom know they want to be cooperative without offending her (and how to actually be more cooperative).

I hope this helps you navigate this difficult road.


Rachel Biale
Rachel Biale

Rachel Biale, an Israeli native, is a Bay Area Jewish community professional and author.