My younger sister Trish doesn’t have the same warm and fuzzy feelings about our grandmother that my older brother and I do. It may have something to do with the time our grandma made Trish play outside – at a senior citizens apartment complex – until she was done cleaning.
“There were no toys or kids outside, and coiled up on a cement utility pad in the front yard was a snake, which scared the bejesus out of me,” Trish says. “So, in fear, I remained on her 2-by-3 cement stoop for hours until she finally came and let me in. To her credit, I think she gave me ice milk after the ordeal.”
That’s right, ice milk.
It was a shocking story for me to hear as an adult. I’d only remembered a doting grandmother and the peanut butter and jelly saltine cracker sandwiches she whipped up on demand.
Grandma had more physical ailments by the time Trish came along. As a result, she may have treated Trish with less kindness. I’m not sure our mom noticed, but then loving crankiness was a personality trait more or less seen as normal in our family – so I doubt anyone was motivated to intervene on Trish’s behalf. Still, I feel bad that Trish doesn’t share the (mostly) sunny memories of our grandmother.
But no one said life is fair – stuff like that happens, right? And apparently, it happens a lot, says Pam Vaughan, a Bloomfield Hills psychologist.
“I feel like our kids get served up on a silver platter to dysfunctional adults all the time,” Vaughan says.
Not that my grandma was dysfunctional (although my sister might disagree). She’d gotten older and maybe crankiness started to outweigh her loving ways. But adults can be dysfunctional. In fact, we can all function less than optimally, especially in stressful times and sometimes kids are targets.
So what should you do if you suspect a family member doesn’t like your kid – or at the very least, treats her less than kindly?
The kid comes first
“I’m always about protecting the child without setting him up to be too damn sensitive to the world,” Vaughan says. “If your child is complaining [about the adult’s treatment of him], have a chat and ask how he is feeling. If he doesn’t think he did anything wrong, encourage him to take the higher road, be respectful and polite and do his best around this person.”
But you still need to observe the interaction to see what’s really going on, Vaughan adds, without the child knowing. If it turns out the adult’s only offense is a quirky personality, “You may need to tell your child, ‘this is how Uncle Paul is. He’s just sarcastic like that.'”
But if the adult is behaving badly, there are steps you can take. If your child sees this relative once or twice a year, “you might want to just let it go, telling your child, ‘we don’t know what’s going on with her – just make sure you are your best self'” when she visits. If the relative is closer to the family, Vaughan suggests having a conversation with the family member.
But what do you say?
First, Vaughan suggests you go into the conversation without any expectations of how things will go.
“Always talk with the ‘I’ – don’t point fingers,” she says. “Just say, ‘I’m witnessing some energy and I’d like to check it out with you. Has my son done anything to you or have I? If it’s anything my child has done, I’m going to observe him, too. If you have any feedback, please let me know.'”
If the other person wants to talk things out, that’s great. Hopefully the problem can be fixed.
But if the adult has turned your child into a scapegoat – perhaps they have an issue with another family member but don’t want to address it – “they might not admit it. The real point of the conversation is to let the person know you are aware of the situation, even if they don’t want to talk about it.”
The good news is that these are opportunities for children to be “part of the solution,” Vaughan says. Maybe they need to add “please” and “thank you” to their vocabulary – or be told to stop kicking Aunt Sally under the table. On the other hand, if the relative’s mistreatment continues even though “the child is being nice and kind, then the parent needs to step in.” In severe cases, the parent may need to “keep the child away from this person,” Vaughan adds.
There’s always a silver lining. It isn’t the worst thing in the world to be on someone’s naughty list. After all, not everyone is going to like you. And it often has nothing to do with you. So if that’s the case, kids, shrug your shoulders and move on.