Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: About a month ago I caught my mother being physically and verbally abusive to my kids, whom she had been watching daily while I work from home. After we fought about it, she left my home, and I haven’t seen or talked to her since.
I’m horrified, both by her actions and that it took me a while to catch on (well, when you grow up with it, I guess it’s hard to recognize). My kids don’t want to see her again.
My mother is apparently waiting for an apology from me for getting mad at her. And I just don’t know what to say. She does not accept blame, or criticism, or questioning anything she says. But my beloved brother is coming to visit next week, so I owe it to him at least to try and talk to her, but what do I say? How do I try and get my mom to understand why I’m upset and to listen to me for probably the first time ever?
Why do you owe this to your brother? Seems to me there’s a break in the logic there.
What just happened to you and your kids, the latter especially, is traumatic, and while your concern for your brother is generous and kind, he’s not your top priority here. The kids are.
Figuring out why it took you so long to see your mom’s abuse, to the point of exposing your kids to it, is also more important than your brother and his visit. You’re responding, classically, by trying to keep the peace, which can be a generous impulse in a healthy family but a self-sabotaging one in a family with an abuser at the helm. Do not negate yourself — not for your brother, not for your mother.
Instead, find the strength to spell out for your mother what behavior you find unacceptable, using specific examples. Explain that if and when you decide to allow her around the children again, visits will be supervised — maybe forever, but for at least as long as it takes her to both admit and demonstrate there are lines she cannot cross.
Because of the serious nature of the problem, and because you aren’t sure of yourself (yet) in handling it, please do all of this under the long-overdue guidance of a competent family therapist.
Re: Abusive grandmother: No, you owe it to your kids to save them from her. My mother knew my grandmother was very verbally and emotionally abusive. But she decided she owed it to a lot of other people to keep the relationship with my grandmother, and said we did too. Never mind what she owed us.
Forgive yourself for not knowing up until now, but from here on out it is up to you to protect your kids.
Yes, yes. And to protect him- or herself. A grandma who can raise her hand to children and still see herself as the victim is not going to accept this new edict quietly. And since Horrified’s mother is going to push back against these new limits, hard and angry, Horrified can only protect the children by learning to stand up to that pressure.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at washingtonpost.com.