If Your Kids Don't See Their Grandparents, You Need To Hear This

by Erin AB Mitchell, MACP
Mother and daughter sitting on the couch behind the grandparent's back
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My dad suffered from Bipolar and he abused opioids to manage his trauma. I know this about him now, although I didn’t as a kid who felt scared and chronically braced for the worst. As time has passed, I do genuinely feel a lot of compassion for him and his situation. And yet, if he was still alive I would not feel safe for my kids to be left alone with him.

Was he dealing with his own trauma? Yes. Did he want to have bipolar and battle an opioid addiction? I believe with everything in me he did not. However, he did not have a good handle on his illness or on his addiction and because of that, I would not have felt safe and/or comfortable leaving my kids alone — or even unattended — with him.

If you have a toxic grandparent (or other relative) in your life, keep in mind you are not keeping your kids from the toxic person — the toxic person’s choices are keeping them from their grandchild. The choice is theirs and not yours; you are holding your boundary about what is safe for your family. We “know” this, right? But somehow, when it comes to our kids and their grandparents, we play all sorts of mental gymnastics: what is best and fair for our kid? Is it fair to assume the grandparent will treat them the same as they did me or my partner? Maybe they’ve changed? I shouldn’t project my negative relationship onto my kid, I should let them have their own relationship, etc. We have heard a lot of these and more, both professionally and personally. And I believe the reasons we do this mental gymnastics are valid.

I genuinely believe as parents, we want all the best for our kids. We want our kids to know maximum love and delight and be surrounded by people who will build health and security for them. And we do not want to be a barrier to them receiving this, even from people who have not provided it to us (i.e. parents or in-laws, and other relationships too).

We also do not want to project our feelings onto our kids. We want to make sure we are holding, and healing from, our own issues and do not let them spill over onto our kids. These are good things: to want the best for our kids and not project our wounds onto them.

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Enter the mental gymnastics arena. We go back and forth. We play the scenario out this way, and then we play the scenario out that way.

But the reality is, the game we play is itself flawed. Because within the game we play, we make it seem like we are the one who is either keeping our child from a beautiful, loving relationship or letting them have it. But that is not the reality those of us playing this game are actually faced with. Those of us playing this game are faced with parents or in-laws who have harmed us and have not moved towards health and healing.

The parents/in-laws we are talking about are unwilling to hear about our experience. They take our words and use them against us. Or use our kid to try to manipulate us. They try to manipulate our kids. Sometimes, they put us or our kids in actual danger. They speak about us in disparaging ways. We can’t trust them, and they are not apologetic. They make our bodies feel tense and on guard. And they do not respect our boundaries and they refuse to acknowledge our boundaries even apply to them because “I am your parent” or “You can’t keep me from my grandchild.”

The grandparent themself is likely dealing with their own trauma(s) and the quote says “grandparent’s choices” when trauma is more than likely not a choice they would make. But the choice they do have, is pursuing growth and health.

It is not always easy to talk about, or even know how to feel about, these complicated relationships. We may try to talk to a friend about it and they may say something like “Is your mother-in-law really that bad?” or “Is it really worth keeping your kid from a grandparent that wants to love them?”

When you are talking about “toxic” relationships, trying to explain “it” can actually feel maddening. But you do not have to defend your feelings. You do not have to “prove” what you know and feel in your own body. You do not have to explain yourself. In these maddening moments, you might need to take a deep breath and remember: you are not keeping your child from their grandparent. The grandparent’s choices are keeping them from their grandchild.