Q: My daughter and her ex-husband have three daughters, ages 15, 13 and 11. My daughter suffers from depression and had a nervous breakdown about four years ago when their divorce was final. They had many years of rocky roads so it wasn't just the last four years that the kids have had to put up with an unstable home. The kids live with Dad and spend a lot of time with their paternal grandmother.
I know that they all criticize my daughter in front of the kids, and I know my daughter criticizes their dad's family to the kids as well. In fact, in the past year, the 13-year-old will not even speak to her mother at all. We had Christmas at our house, so the kids would even come to be with their mother, but the 13-year-old would not even ride in the same car with her.
I feel like if we ignore the 13-year-old's behavior and that by not demanding that she to talk to her mother we are enabling this behavior. At the same time I feel that if we challenge her we might be breaking any connection with her, and I don't want that to happen either.
The dad agreed to take her to counseling so she can work this out, but I don't really think anything is happening with that. Our daughter continues to try to talk with her 13-year-old, but she just ignores her mother's requests. Now our daughter sends letters and cards, hoping to at least make inroads this way.
This is such a mess, for everyone, and I guess I don't even know how to ask the many questions I have. I hope I have given you enough information so you can advise this grandma how to help my family.
A: You are correct when you called this a mess ... it is a huge, multi-layered cast of problems. I will try to peel away the layers in order to give you an answer.
Mental illness in families is often viewed as someone's fault. Instead, we need to create an empathic team of players. If your daughter's mental health has not been diagnosed or treated, then certainly this is the place to start for her to be able to help herself and her children through the painful separation and recovery of divorce. Until this happens, there is very little you can do, so I would put my efforts into supporting and loving your daughter while she begins to get the care she needs. If she is being treated then it is important for all of the family to understand her mental health needs.
It is very likely that your 13-year-old granddaughter is blaming her mother for everything that is wrong in her life. She is looking for a black and white way to put all her problems in one basket and not have to deal with her own feelings and thoughts about her life, her mother and the future.
If the girl's father has not arranged counseling, then I suggest your daughter have her doctor/therapist become a player in making things happen. In such complicated divorces, there is usually a court-appointed guardian ad litem to help make decisions about the kids. With your daughter's consent, her doctor can contact this person to offer services for the children. I do believe that the only way to help your family is to involve the courts because it sounds like there are too many opinions and damaging perspectives that are being leveled at these children. The 13-year-old may be the most visible member because she is standing up and saying "I will not talk or be with my mother because she made all this happen," but the other two girls have as much or more going on and just not displaying their feelings as obviously.
If you have not had any interaction with the medical people involved in your daughter's care I suggest you ask to be included. Mothers have a tendency to blame themselves when their children, even grown, have issues that cause the problems your daughter is dealing with.
Your granddaughters have many issues in their young lives, and therefore the best you can do for them is to love them as unconditionally as possible. Being a positive influence who shares time with them can be the calm in the storm they face daily. For example, since you live in the same region, you could make arrangements to spend one day a week with all three girls ... dinner or lunch at your house with no discussion of family issues. Another time you could spend part of a day with each girl alone ... at the mall, going to a movie or doing something they want to do. You can be the adult who shows them unconditional love, since so many adults are unhealthy and looking to blame everyone.
If you feel a need to say something about her behavior to your 13-year-old granddaughter, I would limit your comments to simple statements that do not require a response, such as "I am sorry you are so unhappy with your mother. It must feel awful to have those feelings." This is not a judgment or an expectation but rather an affirmation of your granddaughter's feelings. She doesn't need to be disciplined for her behavior as much as she needs to be with adults who love her without expectations.
I know I have thrown many ideas your way, but the bottom line is that you cannot change anyone who is involved in the mess your family is dealing with except yourself. I am suggesting to you that you first of all make sure your daughter is evaluated, treated and loved in spite of how her mental illness has influenced all that you are facing. If she refuses to get help and allow you to meet with her doctor or give the court's permission to get help for the kids, then all you can do is as I suggested earlier: love the girls unconditionally.
Thank you for having the courage to write about your family's problems. Mental health is so often ignored, avoided and blamed for all the problems in a family, and you have given me an opportunity to help other readers see some of their own issues through your family's struggles. I hope you are able to help your granddaughters find some peace in their lives. That, more than anything, will help them move on. Kids are resilient, and giving them a safe place to enjoy being loved and appreciated will build their resilience.