Family Almanac: Taming of the grandma with a mean streak

May 23, 2011

Q. My siblings and I need help to deal with a distressing situation in our family.

It involves our mother, the octogenarian matriarch as she calls herself — who is usually charming, funny, generous and loving — and my brother’s grown daughter, a devoted grandchild who sent cards to her grandmother and called her regularly until she and her father became estranged.

We didn’t ask our brother why this happened. We thought it was none of our business. But he told our mother all about it and now she won’t speak to his daughter anymore.

Although my mother, who was reared by a cold and distant aunt, often chastised her friends and her in-laws, she was always warm, loving and fiercely protective of us when we were growing up. She thought that we children could do no wrong, especially her sons. Perhaps that was why she was so hard on this grandchild, not once but several times.

She told some of us that she was no longer part of the family. She stuck Post-It notes over her face in the family photographs that were sitting around her house and she launched into a tirade when this young woman told her that she was getting married. This left the child in tears so we insisted that our mother send an apology to her but it was anything but an apology.


(Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post)

Now my mother has put all of this behind her and wants to know if she will have a special role in the wedding even though the bride-to-be is still afraid of her wrath and some family members are so stressed by her behavior that they will only have small family get-togethers behind our mother’s back. The only good thing about this situation? The father and daughter are trying to repair their relationship.

I know that my mother has no medical excuse for her behavior and that she isn’t likely to change, but how can we heal this rift and how can we prevent more rifts in the future?

A. Your mom is probably quite healthy, as you say, but you’d be wise to take her to a gerontologist for a consult. A specialist for the elderly knows more about the ailments that can afflict people in their 80s than most family doctors do.

Once you’ve ruled out a medical problem, you and your siblings should try a new, more honest approach with your mom because the old one isn’t working and it never will. As any shrink will tell you, the more you indulge bad behavior — whether in an adult or a child — the worse it gets.

Although it won’t be easy, your mother can change, at least a little bit, if you and your sibs change, too, and if you also set some boundaries. They are as necessary for the elderly as they are for the young and for everyone in between.

Without boundaries, your mother will keep right on wrecking friendships, hurting the feelings of those she loves and making her grandchildren cry. Bad behavior has consequences for the bully as well as the bullied and she needs to know what they are.

Don’t be confrontational however, or tell her what she should and shouldn’t have done after she’s already done it. This will only drive her into a corner and then she will have to tell you that her actions were absolutely necessary, which will leave you running on the same old verbal treadmill.

You and your sibs can get off it, however, if you start telling her, casually and conversationally, about those great little parties you’ve been having and who came to them and what was served. Once she hears about two or three of these get-togethers, she’ll be annoyed enough to ask you why she wasn’t invited. Then you can tell her, gently but frankly, that the bride-to-be didn’t want to hear another tirade from her beloved grandmother or that the grandchildren were afraid that she would aim one of her Granny Attacks at them. Or simply tell your mother that you didn’t ask her to those parties because you didn’t want her to get upset if someone said or did something she didn’t like and that you knew she wouldn’t want to spoil everyone’s good time.

Your mother won’t like what she hears, but keep your answers light and loving. If she gets angry or defensive with you however, give her a quick kiss, tell her that you’ll come back when she’s feeling better and leave, without another word.

A 2-year-old stops having tantrums if nobody listens to them, and so will an 80-year-old, especially if she gets a lot of attention when she’s good.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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