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Carolyn Hax: Should parent tell kids their grandparents were abusive?

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
3 min

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: How do you tell your kids about what their grandparents were really like? The grandparents are now dead and the kids (teens) knew them, but not well. Do they ever need to know that they were abusive folks with personality disorders? Should kids know what sort of household their parent really grew up in?

Right now, the kids just know the extended family is “crazy,” but the parts they have seen do not tell the whole story of the past.

— Leave the past alone?

Leave the past alone?: They do need to know. Not all at once and not before they’re emotionally ready for it, of course.

But especially when there was something unusual or unhealthy, your past is the decoder for their present. Even if you’re warm and loving parents and you’ve worked hard to leave behind the unhealthy patterns, you’re still going to carry your history with you. We all do.

And you hardly need me to point out that even happy childhoods are complicated, and even happy families are complicated. It’s safe to assume that some of what your kids have experienced with you as parents is beyond their understanding — an encrypted thing.

When you start to reveal what you came from, you’ll get some “Oooohhhh” moments, as missing pieces fall into place.

The maturity part isn’t just a minor issue, though. Kids get a lot of their confidence and sense of self-worth from their families — thus the emphasis on parents’ not bad-mouthing each other. One way to find out whether your kids are ready for this is to reveal a small corner of what you know, and then gauge their reactions to it. Do they recoil or deny it, or do they ask for more in the form of thoughtful questions that indicate comprehension?

All of this is before getting into the “personality disorders,” which I won’t (not my bailiwick) except to say that if any of these disorders has a genetic component, the kids need to know so they know what to look for and/or address behaviorally — in their parent, in themselves, in their kids.

Re: Past: Our parents both came from homes with alcoholic/challenging fathers and older siblings who were psychologically unstable. We’ve heard the stories over the years, in dribs and drabs. And here’s the takeaway: We are SO PROUD of our mom and dad for being the resilient ones. We had such a secure home growing up, and never doubted them for a second. It’s an honor to be their kids.

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Aw jeez. This is great.

More readers’ thoughts:

  • We had a similar situation — a mentally ill, abusive relative passed away, Spouse didn’t mourn. I had been recently diagnosed with cancer, kids were in late elementary school. We felt the kids needed some backstory so they could understand that while Spouse wasn’t grieving, the kids could and should express all the feels they had about their relative and my situation. We encouraged questions (heck, I posted in here back then), answered honestly, kept the conversation going. It was probably the best decision we made as parents, as it opened communication channels that lasted through to adulthood. My children learned to ask the hard questions, which made me confront my own family history. Win-win. Kids know when something’s up. Talk about the elephant in the room, encourage ongoing questions and conversations. Consult with a therapist as needed.
  • Please talk to your kids about your history. Some of my dad’s mannerisms started making so much more sense after he told us about his own father’s abusive habits and his mother’s general neglect. (My dad is a GREAT dad.)

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Advice columnist Carolyn Hax and cartoonist Nick Galifianakis have collaborated on their Washington Post column for 25 years. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)