Question: We had a huge issue with repeated disrespect and abuse from my father and we have stopped having contact completely as a result. My kids don’t understand why they can’t see their grandfather anymore and I’m not really sure how to talk to them about it. They’re still really young and telling the whole story is inappropriate at their age. What can I say?
Thoughts to Ponder: It’s so difficult when you’re dealing with an abusive family member and make the difficult decision to stop contact to keep everyone safe. Our adult brains are processing so much information, trying to look at things from many different angles to figure out what needs to happen and what the consequences of this decision are for everyone involved and that’s a full time job. It’s so important to spend the time that you need for you to talk about, write about, or otherwise share with others who get you before you talk to your kids. You need to work out some of your own feelings so that you can really imagine what’s happening from your child’s perspective and what they need to know.
Once you’ve talked about it and felt your own feelings until you feel a bit settled, now it’s time to consider what this is like from your child’s point of view. What was their relationship like? Were they close or did they see each other once a year? When will their grandfather’s presence most be missed? Is there less of a relationship (which is common in families where there has been abuse) and is your child really feeling the weight of what you’re feeling, knowing that it’s somehow attached to his grandfather. Does he think this is somehow his fault? Remember that kids are really egocentric (by design) and do believe the world revolves around them to some degree, especially if they’re under the age of 6 or 7.
The simplest story about what happened is the best. “It isn’t safe to be around grandpa. He isn’t able to treat us nicely even after we’ve told him what needs to happen, so we can’t be around him. My job is to keep us all safe and sometimes that means we can’t be around people- sometimes even family members- if we can’t be safe with them.”
Talk about what’s changing for them. “This means we won’t be seeing your grandfather on New Year’s Eve this year and we won’t be talking to him on the phone or FaceTime like you’ve been doing every few months.”
Allow space for their feelings. “I wonder if you’re feeling sad because you’re thinking about all the good times you had together. It’s ok to feel sad about this. I’m sad about it, too. I wanted you to have a grandfather who would love you and respect you and be safe for you to grow up knowing. We can be sad about that together.”
“It’s not your fault.” Name that in simple terms. “You didn’t do anything to cause this. You didn’t do anything wrong. Grandfather isn’t safe for anyone.”
If the explanation isn’t sufficient, they’ll let you know. Let their questions guide your discussion. You don’t have to share big details with a young child and I would recommend not sharing more than they need to know.
Consider more appropriate role models for your child to fill the gap with someone healthy. We want and need our kids to have lots of healthy role models in their lives. And honestly, we all need more layers of support in our community. While finding other people in the community won’t replace your father or your child’s grandfather, having others who can help to model healthy relationships and be a layer of support for you in a way that your father couldn’t have can go a long way toward healing your whole family. Be open to other grandfather-aged people being a part of your family’s life as you feel comfortable.
They’ll need to hear more as they grow. Just remember that this isn’t a one-time conversation. It will need to be revisited as they get older and need to understand more of the story. What may be inappropriate to share now may be necessary when they’re teens and young adults. It’s an important part to continue to help them integrate (connect the thoughts, feelings, and their body to what happened so they can make sense of it) and it is more like a spiral of revisiting it than a single event. You probably do the same thing when you’re working out something important and you’ll probably need the same as a part of your own healing process.
As families become healthier, many families make decisions to set boundaries to keep everyone safe. It looks different in different families depending on the circumstances, the relationship, and the ability for the boundaries to be respected. I often think of what Pam Leo said in her book, Connection Parenting, about choosing your own family. We still have the need to be connected to others AND we have a right for those connections to be safe. Look for others who are on a similar journey, including those who have kids older or younger than yours or even those without kids. The honorable Aunties and Uncles, Tias and Tios who become a part of your family and help to model healthy relationships. Healthy relationships around our families is what we all need, whether they’re blood relatives or not.
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