My daughter is neglecting her children. What can I do?


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. Recently, she split with her boyfriend and is now with another man in prison. (I don’t think she should be with him. Her father has a job. He also had a place to live, but was not a good 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 uses her for his own purposes, to communicate with me and to send me money. What can I do to help him? I’m getting tired of this, and my heart breaks for my granddaughters.

A: Thank you for sharing your difficult situation. If I understand correctly, you are living with your 37-year old daughter, her son, and three of her daughters (four children 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 wrong.) 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.

As I read your letter, it was important that we clarify what is in your control and which 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.

Only you have control over your emotions, and what you can do for your grandchildren to get through their grief.

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. Are we willing to have more than one adult with our children? No. Yes. We want our whole village to love and raise children. When the parents are not available emotionally or physically, we look to the next level of adults and grandparents.

You can help your grandchildren in small and large ways as much as you can. These tasks can include basic caretaking such as feeding and clothing your grandchildren, as well the more complex tasks of listening, guiding and disciplining them. Grandparents bring their wisdom, which is often needed. You aren’t going to “fix” what is broken, but don’t discount what your presence can do for your grandchildren.

Temporarily, I’d stop trying persuade your child to pay attention. Instead, let’s start building more community for our 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 may be helpful to us to be in a position to communicate with each other. 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.

While this will not solve the emotional neglect of the mother, it will help provide a safety net so that your grandchildren feel loved, supported, seen, and guided.

You know that life does not guarantee happiness. However, it does guarantee the ability to rise to the occasion. The impact of family trauma, family wounds and genetics, as well as poverty, education and mental illness, all play an important part in how parents behave. If there are adults who can offer love and guidance, instead of anger and punishment, the sadness, anger, frustration, and deep pain of children can all be managed. This is how true resilience occurs. When we are able to listen to one another and offer compassion, we can grow, even through deep disappointments and pain.

My suggestions may cost money (lessons and teams, therapists, or groups), but please don’t be discouraged. Schools, community groups, and other organizations can provide assistance, sliding scales, and support. Be persistent and consistent. You can help your granddaughters stay on a positive path by keeping the lines of communication open to the school and teachers. 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. This will make her feel defensive and judged, which will cause her to be more open to the prisoner. Instead of focusing on the relationship, try to observe when your daughter is kind 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.

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