How to talk to my kids about my crappy parents?
June 8, 2015 6:34 PM   Subscribe

My parents aren't a part of my life for different reasons and I've never been certain how to approach this with my kids. They've asked pointed questions a few times and I know I can't give vague or incomplete answers forever.

I went no contact with my mom because of worsening mental illness and abusive behaviour. When I had my first kid I knew I had to make a hard choice to protect myself and my baby so I gave her an ultimatum to acknowledge her issues and seek help in order to be a part of my family. She hasn't been able to deal with that so she doesn't get access to my kids.

My dad and I haven't had a good relationship for most of my life and as the years have gone by he's shown less and less interest in me and especially my kids. I'm pretty hurt by that (even though I don't particularly enjoy his company) and I've stopped making any effort whatsoever to maintain the relationship. It's just not worth pursuing him to have it made clear to me yet again that he doesn't really give a shit about his grandkids.

My in-laws are fortunately terrific, involved grandparents so that alleviates some of my guilt. I have some other extended family that my kids see from time to time, so that helps as well. I've known that someday I'm going to have to answer my kids' questions about who my parents are and why they never see them, but after all these years I still don't know what to say. They vaguely remember my dad from the last time they saw him and from the few gifts he's sent; my mom they don't know at all. I don't necessarily try to avoid talking about my parents - I tell them stories about my childhood (which was mostly pretty normal) and generally endeavor to keep the tone neutral or pleasant. It seems like they are on the verge of grasping that there's something different about Mommy's parents compared to Daddy's parents and I'm not sure how to direct that conversation or when to have it.

I grew up hearing all sorts of nasty stories about my own grandparents (even though they were actually very loving towards me and quite involved in my life) and I have no interest in repeating that pattern with my own kids. I also don't want to lie to them or hide this pretty important reality in my life from them. They are nowhere near ready to hear the whole truth (they are young school age) but I need to be prepared for the inevitable.

Any tips? Perhaps from another parent who has also had to go no contact with a mentally ill relative or just given up after being disappointed by a uninterested relative?
posted by thelaze to Human Relations (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Hey there. To put it bluntly, we just put it bluntly. The kids get it, have always gotten it, and we never wanted to squelch their interest in these phantom grandparents they barely remember or have never even met. The wistful sadness that used to come up was pretty quickly replaced by a very matter of fact approach, and I'm happy to report that kids seem to pick up on this sort of thing much more efficiently than do adults who have lots of attachments and nostalgic feelings about how parents and children are supposed to interact.

My partner hasn't had any contact with his parents since 2001. His oldest son kinda remembers them (he was ~6 in 2001), but the other two were still in the oven or years in the future. The mom in question fits the classic description that people in certain circles use--a "narcissist mom"--but our perspective is more clinical--she's a diagnosed bipolar who does not take meds. Her career is in the visual arts and her experiences with medicating muted her and left her very depressed. The absence of meds makes her feel herself, but leaves her prone to aggressive and occasionally violent outbursts underlain by a lot of deep paranoia. The dad in question enables all this for the sake of the mom. It got so terribly bad by the late 90s/early 00s that 3 of the 4 siblings are not in contact with their parents, and the fourth lives on a different continent.

It's a very nuanced situation, and my partner and I don't hold as fast to the narcissist definitions and responses as some do, and that hasn't hurt our ability to deal with the situation. I think that has helped with talking to the kids. We felt pretty uncomfortable with most of the coaching by people in the informal-but-huge narcissist-survivor circles (we're a gay couple with an age gap between us and three kids with four parents, so our family is large, complicated, non-standard, etc., and that doesn't always work well with situations where groups of people have developed their own survival strategies). We went to a sort of narcissist recovery meet-up thing withthe youngest back in the day, and it was... it was tough. There were a lot of strangers trying to coach our oldest (who was very young at the time) on very complex adult relationships, and no one present was trained in counseling or family dynamics. And my goodness, firsthand experience does not a counselor make. We really made a point after that event to just be as open and transparent with the kids as possible. One of our first "house rules" was that any question would be answered, no judgment, and that included everything from dad's parents to sex to drugs to whatever. It's been a great experience.

(This is in no way an indictment of the narcissist parent support groups, which some people find enormously helpful. It quite simply wasn't a framework that mixed well with us and so we moved on from it. YMMV.)
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 6:53 PM on June 8, 2015 [8 favorites]

I have seen this successfully navigated when the discussion is geared towards values rather than actions or specific examples when it comes to very young children. Kids understand values, at least in the abstract, and they will notice when you can show that people who do not live consistently with your values aren't welcome in your life. They will in turn make those choices for themselves later on.

For example, you don't say, "Your grandmother is a mean lady who is abusive. She has a mental illness." You say, "In our family, your dad and I have decided that it's important for us to never yell at one another even when we are mad and we disagree. Unfortunately, your grandma doesn't want to live that way, so she can't come to visit." You don't say, "We don't see your granddad because I don't think he actually likes us." You say, "In our family, we show one another how much we care with words and actions. Your granddad doesn't use words or actions to show his care." Then you can ask them to describe ways they like to show they care with words or actions, or ask them how they like to be shown how much you care about them.

I've seen this get more specific and focus on actions when kids are older, but it sounds like you have a few years before you have to talk about things like "In our family we don't do drugs/we call when we are running late/we know how to politely disagree without disrespecting authority figures/we vote in every election/etc."

Reinforcing family values - they are what you make of them - can help children build better boundaries as they grow older, too, and start making friends in school. If you family value is that you don't tell at one another even when we are mad and we disagree, your children will also learn that they can't have friends over who yell when they are mad and disagree, too. They will see the place your parents fit within your family unit - which is outside of it - and their brains will synthesize it.
posted by juniperesque at 7:05 PM on June 8, 2015 [47 favorites]

My kids are pretty young (four and seven), but I cut off contact with my sister when my eldest was about two, and all I ever told her was that my sister said and did mean things to people, and I don't let people say and do mean things to me. She has since asked me for examples of the mean things, and I've given her a few. I also said that when she's older she may decide that she wants to get to know her aunt, and that I would not interfere with that, but that for now my job is to protect her so she'd have to wait until she was old enough to decide for herself.
posted by xeney at 7:06 PM on June 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have a tiny family (10 people ish), and half of those people were not in my life when I was little. When I asked about it, my parents said something to the effect of, "We know it feels strange to not know your grandparents, uncles, and aunts. Those people love you, but for some reasons that make mommy and daddy very sad, they can't be in your life right now. It's hard for us to talk about because it makes us very sad, but we promise to tell you more when you're older." And they pinky sweared on it and made good on the promise the next time I asked which was in my late teens. Maybe that would work for your kiddos too.
posted by Hermione Granger at 7:08 PM on June 8, 2015 [6 favorites]

I really like what juniperesque suggested in their comment just now, but I want to offer a counterargument to the "values only" approach. My dad focused heavily on values when I was little as a way to explain why we didn't stay in touch with our relatives -- and other people in general. He led me to believe, for example, that our chief family values were that all people who do drugs and drinking are dangerous, bad, vile people, and I grew up being a very judgmental kid for that reason. Had my dad focused more on specific actions I think I'd have had a better grip on life than I did. YMMV.
posted by Hermione Granger at 7:13 PM on June 8, 2015 [7 favorites]

For example, you don't say, "Your grandmother is a mean lady who is abusive. She has a mental illness." You say, "In our family, your dad and I have decided that it's important for us to never yell at one another even when we are mad and we disagree. Unfortunately, your grandma doesn't want to live that way, so she can't come to visit."

I'd be very careful with this script towards young children. Kids are very literal. If -- I mean when -- one of your kids yells at you or her sibling you don't want her to worry she's going to be kicked out of the family.
posted by third rail at 7:27 PM on June 8, 2015 [17 favorites]

My mom was a very difficult person, very mentally ill and narcissistic. But, by the time I had children, she realized that if she could consistently bring her very best to the situation, that would be enough for her to have a relationship with my kids. She did a great job. She then had an accident, the result of which was a fast track to dementia, but she spent some very good years around us, and was appreciated for it, by her grandchildren.

That said, kids are perceptive, and learn what subjects are closed. Then they don't have to process old family matters. Then it leaves the possibility for contact, if the expat parents change, and the kids aren't carrying your baggage.
posted by Oyéah at 7:30 PM on June 8, 2015

I thought my parents'explanation of why we didn't see my dad's parents was pretty good and easy to understand. They always said, "They love you very much, but they are mean to mummy, so we can't visit then often because mummy gets sad."
posted by lollusc at 7:37 PM on June 8, 2015 [7 favorites]

I had grandparents that I was close to, and ones that I wasn't. This never really bothered me, as the visits to the less close grandparents were always boring and a bit awkward. They may never ask.
posted by kjs4 at 7:39 PM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh and the examples they gave when we asked for more info on "mean to mummy" were selected to be age appropriate. So at five or so we got the story about how they wouldn't come to my parents' wedding, and a little older we heard about how they told Dad he could find a "better wife"and how they said Mum probably only married him because she was poor and he had more money. When we were 10 or so we heard about how they also had told her it was her moral duty to go back to her ex-husband who had physically abused her. And when we were in our last teens we learned about the awful things they had said in more detail.
posted by lollusc at 7:45 PM on June 8, 2015

I think you're overthinking this a bit. Both of my parents cut different family members out of their lives at different points, some for a few years and some permanently, and "Mummy and Daddy fell out with them" or "they aren't very nice so we don't want to be friends with them any more" made perfect sense to us as children.

We did get snippets like "Uncle stole money from your grandad's will" and "Grandma used to hit Mummy with a belt and one time she lost her temper and threw a plate of food in the back of the fire" but they were told as exciting anecdotes not traumatic events.

We did live a long way from our relatives so it wasn't reasonable to see them very often anyway. If your family live in the same city that might require more explanation.
posted by tinkletown at 6:14 AM on June 9, 2015

"it's important to be kind and thoughtful. When people aren't kind, then other folks don't want to hang out with them. Unfortunately your grandparents don't behave kindly and thoughtfully, so we don't have them over." When they're older you can explain more.

I don't think there's anything wrong with letting them know that grownups, even blood relative grownups, can be jerks and that jerk behavior has consequences.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:03 AM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

There's a thing you don't mention here: since your mother has tried to contact you as per your linked previous Ask, do you have any concerns about her trying to contact the children? Because that ups the urgency of telling them about her, and making it clear that they should never get in a car with her/talk to her on the phone/give out contact information/etc. On the other hand, I think you also need to make it clear to the kids that this isn't something that happens after a regular fight; as a kid I would have interpreted some of the answers here as a threat levied against imperfect behavior.

I would leave the level of detail at "My mom says things that are so unkind that I don't feel safe or happy when she can contact me. It's not just a little fight that caused this, she was very unkind for a very long time, and she chose to keep being hurtful when I asked her to stop many times." If there are bits relevant to the kid's safety, I'd mention that too. "If someone ever comes up to you and says that she is my mother, I want you to find the nearest grownup and ask them to call me." or however it would work in your family. (My dad had a stalker during my childhood, who I knew about but would not have recognized on sight, which makes me pretty sensitive to this particular bit. As a result we had more-stringent-than-average stranger danger policies in place.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:32 AM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think it's quite possible she will try to contact them when they are older. I'm less worried about something happening now mostly because they are young enough that we can still control their environment and they're not online yet. Her emails to me are less an attempt at contact and more just a symptom of her lack of emotional control. She dumps her angry-outburst-of-the-moment into an email and hits send before she can think twice - it's like a email tantrum.

They certainly have the option of communicating with her when they're older teens or adults - I'm not going to stand in their way. She has a bit of a fantasy going on that they will reject me like I rejected her and then she can swoop in and recreate a relationship with them. At that point in their lives I expect I will be fairly truthful and explicit about her behavior so my kids can make their own decisions with all the facts available. The stuff she says about me (and my husband) is pretty out there so I don't imagine even a rebellious teen would want to form a close relationship with a stranger who says crazy and hateful things about their parents.

Your point is well taken, however, and we will likely need to add an element of "don't trust anyone who tells you she's your grandmother" to the usual stranger danger lectures. We don't live in the same town but we're not that far from either parent. She's not much of a driver fortunately, so I did breathe a bit of a sigh of relief when we moved here that the likelihood of a spontaneous "visit" had significantly dropped.
posted by thelaze at 1:46 PM on June 9, 2015

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