Grandmother Advice: Explain Less And More Empathize More
BY KAREN L. RANCOURT, PH.D.
A reader contacted me seeking advice:
Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,
I am six weeks from seeing my grandchildren for our regular Sunday
visits because my daughter is mad at me. This is the second time she has punished me by denying me access to the children. My heart is broken. I usually see the children at least once a week and two to three times a week because we get together for family dinners.
My daughter has decided that I am a “know-it-all” who “constantly has to prove her wrong,” all the while not seeing she is combative and exemplifies the same behaviors. We have had a strained relationship for many years. Admittedly, I was an emotionally detached parent when she was growing up. I was a single parent working two/three jobs, going to school, and not emotionally available. I own this. I have apologized. I know her love language [describes how we receive love from others] is quality time, and I know I failed her.
Yet, now that she has worked in a school for a year and is taking Human Development and Family Studies courses, she’s the authority on all things wrong with my parenting: “I was too authoritative.” Never mind that I, too, have a background in behavioral science and psychology research.
From my perspective, it’s not a battle of education for me, but millennial parenting and my Gen X ideas of parenting differ. [Note: here is a summary of parenting styles for the various generation cohort groups.] There are some areas of her upbringing that I think were acceptable, yet her courses say the contrary, so I’m horrible.
I reared an intelligent, capable, driven young woman, and at times, I wasn’t as enabling as her friends’ parents, but it was an act of love to help her be strong and self-sufficient, and she is!
The funny thing is, and I say this as a painful irony, she isn’t mad about how I treat the children – this isn’t about the children. If anything, she’s jealous that I am better with them than I was with her, yet she denies me access. I’m trying to compensate for my lacking abilities in her youth; I am so depressed. Your thoughts?
Dr. Gramma Karen’s response
When I am asked for advice on how to resolve an interpersonal conflict, such as the one between you and your daughter, my first go-to place is typically to explore how the involved parties can work through the issues themselves.
In your situation, I will make an exception and come straight out the gate by saying that I think the best option for you and your daughter is to work with a family therapist. Let me explain.
For a conflict to be satisfactorily resolved, the parties involved must be both intellectually and emotionally at peace. Intellectual peace means the head, the brain, if you will, understands the dynamics of the conflict – someone may not agree with them but understands them. Emotional peace is attained when the heart no longer unbearably hurts. In other words, the head and the heart are tranquil enough to coexist in a state of quietude.
Much of what you describe is in the intellectual realm: You want your daughter to understand the hardships you faced raising her, and you want her to appreciate your academic background in behavioral science and psychology research. You acknowledge your parenting shortcomings but then point out that she turned out to be strong and independent – this might feel to your daughter that you are minimizing what she experienced.
The point I want to make is that your participation in the conflict resides primarily in the intellectual domain. In contrast, I suspect that your daughter’s need is for you to appreciate what is going on in her emotional domain.
These might be some of the emotional issues that are agitating her:
- She may have felt alone or abandoned for much of her childhood.
- There may be resentment that bubbles up when she sees you interacting with her children in ways that she wishes you had interacted with her.
- Describing you as a know-it-all may indicate that she feels unheard of in many of your discussions.
- Because you have apologized, she may feel pushed to move on, even though she is not emotionally ready to do so.
- You will likely continue to do or say things that trigger her negative feelings towards you.
These are complex issues that can be best explored with the help of a family therapist. He/she can help the two of you sort through the inevitable emotions that will arise, as well as ensure that you are really hearing what each of you is saying. He/she will know how to help you reconcile in productive ways the intellectual and emotional factors at play.
Going forward, I suggest you talk with your daughter about the two working with a family therapist. Tell her that you want to learn how to listen to her so you can understand the challenges and insecurities she faced growing up and how your actions have affected her. Tell her that because of your strong personality and tendency to be defensive, you want to work with a trained professional, someone she chooses.
If you are feeling like I have placed the burden of working towards resolving the conflicts between you and your daughter on you, you are correct. Your daughter is in the driver’s seat when it comes to you having access to your grandchildren, so it behooves you to prove to her that you are willing to do whatever it takes to be a positive and desirable influence in her and your grandchildren’s lives.
This requires you to do less explaining (e.g., “You need to understand why I did what I did”) that probably comes across as defensiveness to her and more empathizing (e.g., “I can understand why you are feeling that way towards me…”)
Your willingness to work with a family therapist and openness to changing your behavior indicate your commitment.
I hope my suggestions help you and your daughter work on the unfinished business between you.