Q: My daughter is 37 years old and has one son whom I live with and three beautiful girls who long for their mother’s love. She recently broke up with her boyfriend, and she is with another guy who is in prison. (I do not agree with her being with him.) The father of her children has a job. He had a home for them, too, but he was also lacking as a parent. He doesn’t spend very much time with the kids.
My daughter is always on the phone with her boyfriend calling from prison, and it upsets me so much, because her daughters try to ask her questions or tell her about stuff they did at school and she doesn’t pay attention to them. She will just tell them, “Okay, you can tell me later.” My granddaughters get upset, act up and give her a hard time, and I can understand why.
I tried to tell her how to be with her kids, but she gets really angry at me I don’t know what to do anymore. I’m so heartbroken, because my granddaughters are being neglected emotionally and mentally, and I’m worried about them. I tried to keep reminding my daughter that they are God’s gift to her and that she needs to take care of them.
She thinks she’s in love with this prisoner, when he has nothing to benefit her or the kids. I know he is using her just to have someone to talk to and to send him money. What can I do? I’m getting tired of this, and my heart breaks for my granddaughters.
A: Thank you for writing about this difficult situation. If I am reading this letter correctly, you live with your 37-year-old daughter, her son and her three daughters (four children in total). I don’t know the ages of any of these children, but based on the age of the mother and that the girls want to tell her about school, I am guessing they are in middle school or below. (I could be totally off base here.) Your daughter is also not amenable to any parenting input from you, leading to your upset on two levels: your own child not finding her maturity to parent better, and your granddaughters’ frustration, heartache and misbehavior.
So what can you do here?
While reading your letter, I wanted to be sure that we clarify what is within your control and what is not. You have tried to speak with your daughter, and she is not only ignoring you, but she’s also becoming angrier. (She probably knows, deep down, that she is not acting responsibly, and she doesn’t want to hear the truth.) You cannot force the girls’ father to step up, and you cannot ask your granddaughters to care less about their mother and her poor choices.
The only thing left to control is yourself, including what you can do to help your grandchildren navigate their sadness.
When professionals talk about resilience in children, they will often say that it takes one adult — one attentive, loving, compassionate, caring person — to help a child mature into a thriving adult. Do we want more than one adult for our children? Of course. We want a whole village of parents, family and community to love and raise our children, bringing out the best in them and providing boundaries to keep them safe. But when the most critical people in this scenario (the parents) are not emotionally or physically available, we turn to the next layer of adults and grandparents, and this is you.
As much as possible, you can step forward to care for your grandchildren in big and small ways. This can include the basics of feeding them, clothing them and caretaking, as well as the bigger tasks of listening to them, guiding them and disciplining them. Grandparents can bring their wisdom to the table, and it is much needed here. You aren’t going to “fix” what is broken, but don’t discount what your presence can do for your grandchildren.
I would (temporarily) stop trying to persuade your daughter to pay attention and instead begin building more community for these granddaughters. Try to find loving and trusted adults, whether that’s a school counselor or therapist, or try community centers, places of faith or sports teams.
Know that, unless you have a release from your daughter, you won’t be able to get information from the counselor, but as a caring adult in your granddaughters’ lives, you can speak with the school to let them know that the girls may need a little extra attention or help.
As one school counselor I spoke with said: “If it was my case, I would approach it with Mom as, ‘Oh, I understand your mom also lives with you guys. It might be helpful for us to be able to communicate with her as well. Is it okay if you sign this release for us to do that?’” And you can try to get your daughter on board in that way.
This will not remedy the problem of the mother emotionally neglecting her children, but it will provide a needed net, so your grandchildren can feel supported, loved, seen and guided.
Life, as you know, does not guarantee ease, nor does it guarantee parents who rise to the occasion. Generational trauma, family wounds, genetics, cultural systems, poverty, education, mental illness and addiction: All of these and more play an important role in how parents show up, and although it would be my wish that all parents could heal and fully see their children, this is not reality. The sadness, anger, frustration and deep pain of the children can be worked through if there are adults who can provide love and guidance instead of punishment and anger; this is how true resilience happens. We can mature, despite pain and deep disappointment, when we have the compassionate ear of one other human.
I know my suggestions can cost money (lessons, teams, therapists, groups), but please do not be deterred. Aid, sliding scales and support can be found through schools, community organizations and more. You must stay persistent and consistent. Keeping the lines of communication open with the school and teachers will also help keep the granddaughters on a more positive path. If the granddaughters’ behaviors continue to worsen, you want the teachers and administrators to understand that they aren’t “bad”; they are frustrated.
As for your adult daughter, you already know what doesn’t work: telling her that her children are God’s gift, and repeating that she needs to take care of them. She probably feels judged and defensive, making her lean harder into this relationship with the prisoner. Stop discussing the relationship, and try to notice when your daughter is kind and attentive to her children. Tell stories of when your grandchildren were born, and remember what a good mother she was (even if that’s a little true).
I know it’s heartbreaking to watch this pain, but get support for yourself, and know that you are critically important to your grandchildren. Good luck.