Carolyn Hax is away. In her absence, we are running columns from her archive.
Dear Carolyn: How can I help my daughter, “Kara,” better deal with my mom? When my mom gets irritated or angry, she shuts down and gives the silent treatment, even to Kara, who is 3.
For example, Kara will decide she doesn’t want to talk to my mom, and then five minutes later she does, and my mom will say, “Oh, NOW you want to talk to me? Well I don’t want to talk.” And then she proceeds to sit in front of Kara and ignore her. If Kara touches a craft project my mom is working on, same thing. It was hurtful to me as a child but I can’t seem to figure out how to get my mom to stop — I’ve talked to her about it, but she says I’m being sensitive.
Carolyn says: It’s not your job to get your mom to stop. It’s your job, in the short term, to protect your child from people who do hurtful things to her; in the long term, it’s your job to arm her to deal with hurtful people on her own.
Since you’re able to give specifics of this grandmotherly cruelty, I have to assume you’re witnessing it. That means you have an opportunity to accomplish both your jobs at once by saying to your mother, “Please don’t ignore Kara like that.” And if your mom persists: “I won’t let you treat Kara like that,” picking up your daughter and taking her out of range of your mother’s toxic cloud. In doing so you both protect Kara from further psychological warfare, and you draw her an invaluable blueprint for standing up to, and then declining to engage with, a bully.
You admit to being a victim of that warfare yourself, so you know how important it is that you protect your child.
Your history also may mean your ability to stand up to your mom is compromised, though; the abuser’s classic first step is to weaken a victim’s defenses, by eroding their self-confidence to the point where they feel the abuse is their fault, their best option, or their duty to withstand. If your mother has done that to you, then the best way to help Kara is to help yourself. It may be a matter for competent counseling, but courage is a necessity either way, as are nonnegotiable boundaries for your mom (see above) — so start with those and gauge your next step from there.
Know signs of abuse
Dear Carolyn: What would you say is the appropriate amount of certainty required before calling Child Protective Services on someone? I am about 40 percent convinced my sister-in-law is abusing my nephews, but she and I already have a strained relationship and I don’t want to hurt it or her in some irreversible way over such a low percentage of certainty.
Carolyn says: I encourage anyone in your position — meaning, with grounds to suspect child abuse, but lacking confidence in your assessment of the situation — to call the Childhelp hot line (1-800-4-A-CHILD). Childhelp is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting children from abuse, and its trained staff can help you identify what to look for and when to get the authorities involved. Better to get informed and engage cautiously than to sit back and do nothing at all.
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