How to be a lifeline for an unfavored grandchild
BY KAREN L. RANCOURT
A distraught grandmother sought my advice concerning her granddaughter:
My son-in-law bullies my 6-year-old granddaughter Katy, while showering affection on her 3-year-old twin siblings – hugging and kissing them and telling them he loves them over and over.
The day after Thanksgiving, Katy woke up and made a poster for every member of the family, saying she loved them. Then, we went for her a walk. Her father had been sleeping in, and when we got back from our walk, he didn’t say good morning to her or ask her how the walk was. He began dressing her down in front of us. He looked at the posters but didn’t say anything.
It’s as though she cannot do anything right. Furthermore, he tries to draw my daughter to his side against Katy. She vacillates between them, sometimes sticking up for Katy, but also favoring the twins.
I spoke individually to him once about his criticism of Katy. He acknowledged that he didn’t get along with Katy all that well. For a while, he made a show for me of being nice to her, which I didn’t believe. He is back to over disciplining her. She blurted out to me yesterday that her father loved her siblings more than he loved her and that he wasn’t fair to her.
I feel very uncomfortable with the whole situation, and I feel his verbal abuse will have damaging consequences. What can I do?
Your concern for Katy’s emotional and psychological well-being sounds warranted. From what you describe, she is, as author Grace Marguerite Williams explains, an “unfavored child.”
As an unfavored child, Katy is apt to be:
- Held to a different and/or harsher standard than her siblings.
- Punished more for mistakes that the other siblings may get away with.
- Denied privileges granted to the other children in the family.
- Shown less or no affection or positive attention.
- Ostracized and scapegoated for any wrongs committed (whether they are real problems or just misperceptions).
- Marginalized, even demonized by parents.
Ms. Williams points out that many unfavored children carve out a niche for themselves and establish their independence, refusing to be subjected to the unfair expectations of their families. However, many unfavored children develop worrisome and problematic attitudes and behaviors. They:
- often have little or no self-esteem.
- become victims of a fatalistic self-fulfilling prophecy that nothing they do will ever be right.
- are not able to develop healthy and trusting relationships.
- come to believe that they deserve the unkind and uncaring treatment they are getting.
- become depressed.
Of course, these potential outcomes are precisely what you want to help Katy avoid.
Be Katy’s go-to person
My advice is that you be Katy’s safe harbor. To do so, you need to be careful not to alienate her parents, as they control your access to their children. Here are the steps I ask you to consider:
- Sit down with your daughter and son-in-law and remind them that your son-in-law said he doesn’t always get along with Katy. Do not expound on this with any judgmental or other comments.
- Explain to them that Katy told you she feels you love the twins, but you don’t love her. Again, make no other comments.
- Ask them how they feel about Katy feeling unloved.
- Listen to their responses carefully.
As unfathomable as it is for many to comprehend, there are parents who dislike one or more of their children (and, it should be noted, there are also grandparents who dislike a grandchild). This is an all-too-frequent reality. Alas, the very people who should be a child’s protectors are the very ones from whom a child needs to be protected!
- If they give any indication that they don’t want her to feel unloved, ask if it would be okay with them that in the future, anytime you see that they and Katy “aren’t getting along,” if you might ask, “How can I help?”
If you remain non-judgmental and position yourself as someone who wants to help them and Katy when “they aren’t getting along,” they may be more apt to seeing you as a non-threat who is merely trying to help all of them.
When they hear you ask, “How can I help?”, this may become a safe indication to them that there may be a situation brewing that will leave Katy feeling unloved. This might be enough for them to take a deep breath and reevaluate what’s going on.
A word of caution: if either your SIL or your daughter ask you to tell Katy anything on their behalf, decline. Politely inform them that anything they want to say to Katy, they must do themselves. You will not be a go-between in their communication with their daughter.
- However, if your son-in-law and daughter tell you to mind your own business when it comes to their interactions with Katy, then you must back off. Tell them you appreciate them listening to you. In either case – that is, they are open to your suggestion to be a helpmate, or they shut you out – you have put them on notice that they have a daughter who has expressed to you that she is feeling unloved.
Even if your son-in-law persists in being unkind, your daughter may take a more consistent and supportive role in her interactions with Katy. You point out that your daughter sometimes sides with Katy; this may be an indication that she feels she needs to tread carefully around your son-in-law – another reason you want to do everything possible to remain welcome in their household. Your son-in-law may be unkind in other ways in that household.
- Meanwhile, in your relationship with Katy, your job is to be always available to her:
Be someone she can come to, someone she can count on to listen to her and to understand her feelings. When she says things like, “Why don’t my parents love me like they love the twins?”, do not try to explain her parents’ motivation. Simply say, “Here’s what I do know. You are a wonderful and loveable child! You are … (point out all her strong and admirable traits and behaviors).”
Say things to her that if she were to repeat them to her parents, they would not feel you are siding with her against them. It is important that you not give them any reason to deny you access to Katy and the twins.
The rewards and challenges ahead
I close by sharing with you how one woman credits her grandmother with being a lifeline when she felt unloved by her other grandmother: “Help children in this situation see all the many others in their lives who love and accept them unconditionally. Thanks to my other grandmother interceding on my behalf and from working with a good therapist, I am now able to feel sorry for my grandmother, who was mean and spiteful. I am indifferent towards her now, but as a child living through it, I felt unloved, confused, and humiliated.”
In short, I am suggesting you be available to Katy in the ways outlined above – that is, be a constant resource to Katy while not causing her parents to shut you out. Because this may prove emotionally taxing and draining on you, it is important that you have someone you trust to talk to, someone with whom you can share how this heartbreaking situation is affecting you, someone who can remind you of the critical role you are playing in your grandchild’s life.
Hope you enjoyed “How to be a lifeline for an unfavored grandchild.” To read more from Karen L. Rancourt, click here
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karen L. Rancourt, Ph.D., advice columnist, is also an author. Her most recent book is, It’s All About Relationships: New Ways to Make Them Healthy and Fulfilling, at Home and at Work.