Carolyn Hax: Grandma insults family stepson because of ‘hard’ grandchild

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Dear Caroline: My husband and I have been married for 33 years and shared the raising of five children, all of whom have now grown up with families of their own.

One of them, my stepson, got married 13 years ago and he and his wife are parents to a 13 year old girl. Over the years I have tried to be a grandmother to this girl and I found it hard to do. Now that she’s a teenager, things get even more difficult and family quarrels ensue.

I am often called to what I say to her. Seems like I’ve been on my guard for a while now. Last summer it became unbearable in some ways and I told her and her mother that I thought they didn’t like me. They left the house and I haven’t spoken to them personally since.

As a family, they are invited to various birthdays, holidays, etc. They don’t show up.

It’s become a matter of how we handle situations like this, and frankly, I don’t want to get involved in something that makes me uncomfortable, knowing what they think about me. I’m not sure how to handle this situation. My husband wants me to be there.

Anonymously: Not to exaggerate myself or anything, but if I chose not to attend things because I knew someone there didn’t like me, I would never leave my house.

Is it sometimes uncomfortable? Terribly.

But who promised us comfort? Hardly anyone is universally loved. We all have to suck it up sometimes, even around some family members.

You have even better reasons than most. First off, you’re not just any adult – you’re an alpha adult here, sharing the top of the family pyramid with your husband. And your personality clashes with your granddaughter’s, apparently, which happens. And yes, it can be frustrating, upsetting and hard to bear.

But you’ve made a mess of these two realities, hopefully with the best of intentions.

When the top of a family pyramid is involved in making a mess, the primary responsibility lies in cleaning it up. This is for you to resolve by bringing grace, humility, maturity, patience, and an open mind, intentionally, with every choice you make now with your family. For this branch in particular.

Of course, you can’t ask a child to take the lead in making things right. A young adolescent is not nearly as equipped as her grandmother to make difficult social and emotional choices to restore family harmony. Some may have more grace than their years, but that’s a bonus, not a plan.

You certainly can’t ask the girl’s mother to take charge of the peace; she has already made her own calculation that she has to stand up to you to protect her girl.

Of course you can’t ask your husband or son to intervene. Your mouth formed the divisive words. So it’s up to you to:

  • Recognize that a “hard” child is not a bad child. “Difficult” just means there are challenges you haven’t seen before that require you to update your playbook. That’s the grace part.
  • Admit that you handled this conflict poorly and paid more attention to your own hurt feelings than to what her grandmother’s girl needed. That’s the part of humility.
  • Recognize that what has been done has been done and this is now an awkward situation – and that you, as an alpha adult and experienced parent and grandmother, the best person for the job to face the discomfort head-on and get through it. That’s the maturity part.
  • Understand that you can kneel yourself before them and they can still choose to hold onto their grudges. To accept that and resist the urge to double down on your own resentments, you need patience, along with a whiff of the other qualities.

You cannot expect to repair multi-person wrecks. Just your share of them.

The last one, the open mind, is to inoculate yourself against another mess like this one. You are a parent, a stepparent, a grandparent – you bring a lot of experience into your interactions with extended family. I make no mistake about that. But if you allow your accumulated wisdom to harden into expectations of how things “should” be, with you as the arbiter, you become the person who (say) gives the utterly strange detail that the wedding and child both 13 years ago. arrived – and who is “called” for comments to a child. After all, kindnesses are not ‘called’.

The best part about choosing to act with grace after this is that it works, even if my understanding of this situation is completely wrong and unfair. Even if you were always nice and non-judgmental to your granddaughter, even if you hugged her as she is, even if your frustrated outburst was an exception that you only experience once in her life – even with all that, your best course is still to absorb the discomfort bravely and behave kindly. For yourself and for your family.