How Should I Talk to My Kids About a Family Estrangement?

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Having a dysfunctional relationship with your parents — to the degree that you find it necessary to cut off all contact with them — is painful enough. But when you also have kids who are beginning to wonder why grandma hasn’t come to visit in a long time, old wounds get reopened again and again.

How do you talk to little kids about an estrangement from a close family member? That’s the question one reader sent in to Parental Advisory:

We have been estranged from my in-laws for several years, and we are having a difficult time explaining the situation to our two kids, who are ages 7 and 4. The situation with my father-in-law is easy to explain. He was incredibly verbally abusive towards my wife (and many others), even into her adulthood, and she cut off contact with him more than a decade ago. He and my mother-in-law divorced when my wife was in college; my wife continued living in his house, and she did errands for him since he is the type of guy who doesn’t want to do anything at all for himself. The first time I met him, I went into her house, and he was screaming at her about the cost of his internet bill, and then about something her mother did, neither of which she had any control over. I was absolutely shocked as I had not witnessed anyone’s parent treat them like that before. He probably doesn’t even know that he has grandchildren, and may not even know that we have been married for 10 years. So, that one is pretty simple, when it comes up we just tell the kids that their grandfather does not know how to interact with people.

The situation with my mother-in-law is more complicated and harder to explain to young children. Growing up, my wife always thought she and her mother were close, and they were. It wasn’t until later that my wife realised MIL treated her more like a friend than a parent. As an example, before MIL and FIL divorced, she began seeing another man behind his back. At the time my wife was ~18 and MIL told her about this secret and expected her to keep it from her father. While this was obviously inappropriate, MIL also expected my wife to be happy for her since she finally found love! This was sort of the first red flag that something was wrong in this relationship.

My FIL eventually found out about this relationship, and MIL moved out to live with her boyfriend. As I mentioned earlier, FIL was verbally abusive to both my MIL and my wife. His anger over his wife’s infidelity only increased this, and my wife was left living alone with him. This arrangement lasted for a couple of years until my wife and I moved in together. All through the time period my wife still lived with her father, MIL would chat with her as if they were friends, and acted incredibly happy that she was now living with a man she loved. She never once expressed concern or regret over my wife living alone with her horrible father.

After my wife and I were living together, the relationship between her and her mother continued to shift, and the parent/child relationship almost reversed. My wife would call her mum looking to spend time together, and her mum never wanted to. At this point MIL would only contact my wife when she needed a favour and, frequently, to borrow money. Keep in mind that at the time, my wife was still finishing up college so she wasn’t exactly wealthy. To me it appeared that MIL wasn’t interested in a relationship, but liked a feeling of control over her daughter.

When my wife and I became engaged, her mother had a very strange reaction. Instead of being happy, she cried, and they were not tears of happiness. Through conversation with her it became clear that she feared losing this control she seemed to have over my wife. After we got married, my wife and MIL’s relationship continued on the way it had been; MIL would decline invitations to spend time together, but never hesitated to contact us if she needed help with something or wanted to borrow money. She would even show up unannounced at the retail store my wife worked in and ask her to borrow money while she was working!

Things got even worse after we had our first child. When my wife told MIL she was pregnant, she reacted in much the same way as she had when we told her about our engagement. She even asked my wife if she was going to terminate the pregnancy, which was an absolutely shocking question. Throughout the pregnancy, MIL made it very clear she would prefer a granddaughter. After our son was born, she showed very little interest in him. She would occasionally stop by for 10 minutes, take a photo, and leave. I don’t want to start a debate over gendered toys, but she would even give him toys that were clearly intended for girls. It seems it was all part of wanting things “her” way.

Life went on, and we talked to MIL less and less. Eventually it became clear that MIL’s relationship with her boyfriend (same guy from the affair) was beginning to sour. She all of a sudden had more interest in trying to talk to my wife. The thing is, she would have unreasonable requests and get angry when my wife denied them. As an example, one Thursday, she called my wife out of the blue and wanted to know if she would go on a short weekend road trip with her. To me, this would be a ridiculous short-notice request any time, but we had an infant at home and this would have left him and I alone with zero notice. My wife told her she wouldn’t be able to go, and MIL got angry and didn’t talk to us for a couple of months.

Eventually MIL started talking to us again, usually to borrow money. My wife eventually put her foot down and told her we couldn’t do that anymore. MIL was angry, but stopped asking. By this time we had two kids. We would still make attempts to see MIL, and she still didn’t show much interest unless she needed a favour. I should probably also mention that anytime my wife turned down one of her requests MIL would lay an incredible guilt trip on her.

These events leading up to our estrangement from my MIL were cumulative. The last straw came when, one Friday, MIL called out of the blue and asked my wife to drive her around for several hours the next day so she could complete various errands. We already had plans for a day trip with the kids and my family that day, and she told MIL she was unable to do it. MIL became very angry that my wife would not accommodate her, they had an argument, and they haven’t spoken since. That was three years ago.

At this point, my wife has no interest in reconciling. She believes her mother is a narcissist, and that she has no understanding of anything she has done wrong. My son is old enough to have memories of this grandmother, and there are some photos that the kids come across occasionally. My wife suffers from anxiety and depression (she’s in treatment), and the mere mention of her mother triggers her anxiety. We’ve tried explaining to the kids that the reason we don’t see that grandma is because she isn’t very nice to people, but this doesn’t seem like a strong enough reason to cut her out completely. We would really appreciate any advice on how to handle this situation. I do not expect MIL will ever change.

How should I handle this with my kids?

There is obviously a lot to unpack here, as is to be expected with an estrangement from a family member — particularly a parent. I considered trimming your question, but as you said, the factors in the estrangement were cumulative and I didn’t want to minimise that by attempting to summarise further what you’ve clearly already summarised here. But I’ll start by saying something that will hopefully be helpful in taking some of the pressure off: Your kids don’t need to know all of these details, at least not now — and not any time soon, if ever.

Kids ages 4 and 7 certainly cannot grasp the complexities at play in the dynamics of this relationship; but I think where you’re getting tripped up is feeling like you need to summarise what happened in an age-appropriate way while also capturing the enormity of the problems involved. In other words, you don’t want them to think you would cut anyone out of your life — including them in the future — simply because they had a moment of not being “nice.” On the other hand, “Grandma is a toxic narcissist who only comes around when she needs money” isn’t the way to go either.

I reached out to clinical psychologist and parenting expert Dr. Regine Muradian for input on your situation. To start, Muradian says, if they’re not yet asking about these grandparents, there is no reason to point out their absence right now. You don’t need to highlight, for example, that they’ve got one set of grandparents in their lives but not the other. (They are very likely to become curious and ask you about your in-laws at some point — but if that doesn’t happen until they’re teenagers, that’s ok).

If they are asking you about your in-laws now, though, as it sounds like at least your older child is, Muradian says to keep your explanation for their absence simple and vague.

“I think the parents should be as vague as possible with that age group because you don’t want to create any sense of [fear of] abandonment or rejection on the child’s part, where they’ll think, ‘Oh, are you going to do that to me?’” Muradian says.

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There is no perfect phrasing to use in this situation — it will always boil down to not only your child’s age but their maturity, their personality and their sensitivity. In general, though, you can stick to basic explanations like, “Grandma was hurtful toward Mummy” or “Sometimes when people are hurtful/not nice to us, we need to stay away from them.” You can even say, “We love Grandma, but she was being hurtful, and sometimes we need to protect ourselves from people who hurt us, even if we love them.”

As they get older, Muradian says, you may feel comfortable disclosing more information about the relationship, particularly if they have specific questions. The most important thing is to be open to their questions and honest in your responses, because you are their main role model for building relationships based on that type of communication.

“You want the child to feel comfortable enough to come to you as a parent and ask [about the situation],” Muradian says. “If you’ve been avoiding, avoiding, avoiding a question, and they’re kind of like, ‘Well, I’m not gonna ask the question because I don’t want to hurt Mummy or Daddy’s feelings,’ that can create, I think, a pattern that starts developing into something that’s not healthy.”

She also stresses that it’s crucial for parents to keep adult conversations, particularly those surrounding conflicts between themselves or other family members, out of earshot of the kids. Children pick up more from adult conversations than we realise, so it’s always better to talk through those issues when you’re alone.

And finally, you mention that your wife’s anxiety can be triggered by the mention of her mother, which is certainly understandable. And it’s great that she is receiving treatment for that anxiety and her depression — and that you support her in that. Because her anxiety surrounding the relationship with her mother may also impact your ability to talk to your kids about this, though, Muradian says it could be beneficial for both of you to meet with a psychologist or parenting expert in your area to work through your specific situation and discuss how to talk to your kids about it.

More resources:

This information is not intended to be used as a substitute for consultation with a professional psychologist or other professional health or medical provider.

Have a parenting dilemma you’re grappling with? Email your questions to [email protected] with “Parental Advisory” in the subject line.

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