Care and Feeding

How Much Effort Should I Make With My Estranged In-Laws?

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Natalie_board/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and his parents are not talking to each other and haven’t been for nearly a year. I don’t agree with this, but after trying to intervene, I’ve decided I need to let them deal with this situation by themselves. I think it is important that my kids have a relationship with their grandparents, but even though they love the kids very much, they never try to reach out to them. I told them both on several occasions to call me or text me to talk with them, but if I don’t reach out to them, they never talk. My kids are 6 and 9, and if I tell them to call their grandparents, they will do so, but without prompting, they never ask me if they can call them. I know they love their grandparents but the situation is tearing them apart too.

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Should I keep trying to facilitate communication between my kids and their grandparents? Or should I let their grandparents decide?

—Is Silent Treatment Inherited?

Dear Is Silent Treatment Inherited?,

It’s commendable that you’ve made an effort to keep the lines of communication open between your kids and their paternal grandparents. It doesn’t sound like your husband has been opposed to this. It also doesn’t sound like the grandparents find the calls from your kids unwelcome.

If all of this is the case, it’s fine to suggest to your 6- and 9-year-old that they call their grandparents from time to time. But the onus shouldn’t be on them—or you—to maintain contact with them. This would be true even if they weren’t so young, but at 6 and 9, they definitely shouldn’t be made to feel responsible for maintaining communication with their grandparents.

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If contact is one-sided, and if it’s one-sided only because they’re feuding with their son, they’re making a conscious choice to be uninvolved with the kids. You don’t need to put any additional pressure on them or own yourself to make more of an effort than you already have.

Hopefully, the disagreement between them and their son will end soon, and your children won’t grow to feel further impacted by this ongoing estrangement.

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From this week’s letter, “I Regret Bribing My Son to Get Good Grades”: “I always want him to work hard and try, but I don’t want to punish him if he tries hard and still doesn’t ‘win.’”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m mom to two great teenagers. Their dad and I divorced nine years ago (my choice), in part because I’d finally realized how passive-aggressive my husband was and that we’d never have a real partnership. My parents had a horrible, dysfunctional divorce and so both my ex and I have worked hard to make our divorce civil. We all hang out together at events, and I like my ex when I don’t have to rely on him. I never bad-mouth him to my kids or let anyone else do so.

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Now, though, my kids are now having some of the same problems with him that I had. I’ve been walking a line of trying to validate their experiences while also reminding them that their dad had a really traumatic childhood (his dad was a severe alcoholic and his mom was non-supportive) and that he has a lot of great traits. My 14-year-old daughter summed up her dad’s main problem to me yesterday as that everything is about him (she has a very high EQ but also has a lot of anxiety, which her dad doesn’t help with). That reminded me of something I’d just learned about: covert (or vulnerable) narcissism. In doing some reading today, I think my ex has some of those tendencies and it’s not good to be a kid of such a parent. I’ve had my daughter on the waitlist for a therapist for six months and am still waiting, but in the meantime, are there any tools I can give my kids to help them have a healthy relationship with their dad without turning them against him? I know he won’t change. My mom turned me against my dad for years and it took years to recover from that, so I really don’t want to do that to my kids. (Note, my son is almost 18 and graduates in the spring and doesn’t seem to care as much about his dad’s guilt trips and manipulations).

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—Worried in Wisconsin

Dear Worried in Wisconsin,

You’ve done the hardest work already: refraining from speaking ill of your children’s dad while waiting for them to grow old enough to develop their own opinions. That can be quite difficult, and it requires a great deal of patience. Keeping your own experiences and impressions of your ex to yourself all these years has given your kids the freedom to figure out for themselves what their relationship with him should look like.

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I’m not sure that you need to intervene much more than that, especially not with your 18-year-old. It sounds like he may have already developed at least one coping mechanism for dealing with his father: avoidance. Sometimes minimizing contact with a parent who exhibits narcissistic traits is the best way to maintain civility.

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Between your efforts to find your 14-year-old a therapist, her own intuition about her dad’s emotional limitations, and her conversations with you about her relationship with him, your daughter also seems to have enough of a plan in place for dealing with her dad. She’s already figured out that she’ll have to approach each interaction with him with an understanding that he finds it difficult to empathize or see things from any perspective other than his own.

You can reiterate to her that it isn’t possible to change anyone else’s behavior, but we do have the power to respond to other people’s behavior in whatever way makes us feel most at peace. What will make your daughter feel less anxiety in her interactions with her dad? I hope both you and a good therapist can help her answer that question and develop some action steps that will protect her from any frustration and hurt she may be feeling.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Sunday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My family shares a multi-unit building with another family. I have a 7-year old, and the other is a blended household with slightly older kids (think ages 9-11) from both parents. Their kids visit on a coordinating every-other-weekend schedule. The parents send the gaggle of kids out into the backyard every time they’re here, mostly just calling them in for meals. There isn’t much for the older kids to do in the yard (there’s a table and chairs, but that’s about it). But my child really likes the youngest kid, and will often go out to play with them in our shared yard because, well, why not? And she’ll take art supplies like paper, pencils, cardboard, tape, etc. to share, which I think is so nice.

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One of the older two kids, however, has a very, very hard time playing nicely with others. They destroy property (pull branches off trees and bushes), purposefully ruin the younger kids’ art, physically pushes all the kids, lies to me, and thrives on pushing everyone’s buttons. The other family’s parents never come outside to check on them or keep an eye on them, even from inside. For the past ten visits or so, I’ve been the one to police behavior issues when the kids haven’t been able to resolve things on their own. I try to be pretty direct with the one child like “I’m frustrated that you broke this tree. We don’t destroy plants or property here. Please don’t do this again.” But I’m really, really over being the bad cop for someone else’s kid when their parents live right here. Do you have tips on how to approach the parents, whether it be about their presence, ground rules, expectations, and general approach to behavior issues?

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—Not Their Mom

Dear Not Their Mom,

This sounds like an incredibly frustrating situation, and ten visits is a long time to have endured it. Try asking the kids’ parents to come up with a shared child supervision schedule. Let them know that you’ve been keeping an eye on all of the children while they’re playing together, and every time, there’s been some level of conflict that needs adult intervention. It may help to cite a few specific examples. Let them know you’re uncomfortable with reprimanding a child whose parents aren’t present, but you’re also uncomfortable with watching any of the children bully the others.

Ask when they’ll be available to assist with mediation duty, because you don’t intend to do it alone. If they are unwilling to supervise and/or correct their children’s behavior, you may need to find someplace else for your children to play during their visits.

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Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

My mother committed suicide when I was a teenager, after a long and traumatic battle with alcohol, prescription drugs, and bipolar disorder. I have an 11-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter. They have asked in the past what happened to my mother, and I’ve simply said that there was something wrong with her brain. Which is true. However, there is a kid in my son’s class who recently lost a family member to suicide.

I know my kids are eventually going to want more details about my mother’s death. I don’t want to lie or be completely evasive, but I’m not sure how to handle the conversation(s)—I don’t want to scare or worry them. For what it’s worth, neither of my sisters ever really told their kids about our mother, but they found out from other relatives and they were angry that their mothers didn’t tell them. I just don’t know exactly how to talk about my mother’s death in an age-appropriate way. Please help!

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—Family Secrets

Dear Family Secrets,

Sometimes, life gives us openings to discuss difficult subjects with our kids. If your son already knows how his classmate’s family member died, this is your opening. Start the discussion by helping him process what he’s heard at school. Explain to him what death by suicide is and how it’s impacted you and your family. Tell him what you would’ve wanted someone to tell you when you were a teen, dealing with the unimaginable. Build on the conversations you’ve already had with him and your daughter.

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Reassure them that they’re safe and that, while suicide impacts everyone who misses the person who’s gone, it isn’t something a family needs to hide or to fear. Let their questions guide your conversation. Answer to the best of your ability. That may be all you need to do, at least for now.

—Stacia

For More Parenting Coverage, Listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

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