Dear Therapist:

My husband has a mental health issue, which is...under control, with the help of therapy and a lot of support...We were able to repair the damage it caused to our relationship. However, because of his issues, which started in his parents' house at a young age, I have a very bad relationship with my husband's parents. They are aware of the issue and have been incredibly unsupportive. In fact, they have been quite cruel to me about it. They have spoken against me to my husband and have undermined some of the things we have put in place to help me and my husband. They have lied to me and refused to help pay for the therapy for the issue which began in their own home, even though they are people who can clearly afford to help.  I do not talk to them at all, but I have not stopped my husband or children from having a relationship with them (even though I wish they wouldn't).  Please do not encourage me to make shalom [peace] with them.  My therapy has taught me to stay away from toxic and abusive people and to take care of myself.  My question is, how do I explain to my children, the oldest of whom is 10, why I do not speak to my in-laws and stay away while they are visiting?  What would be an age-appropriate way to explain this to them, so that...they don't copy this with their in-laws one day (I daven [pray] that they should have healthy spouses and nice, supportive in laws).  I would really appreciate your guidance.  

Thank you!

 

Response:

Relationships with in-laws can be challenging. Even in the best of times, adding an entirely new set of people, relationships, perspectives, and ways of thinking into a family dynamic can be taxing. When there are significant differences in personality and ways of dealing with important issues, problematic situations often arise.

Despite your children’s young ages, as you intimated, they have likely picked up on some of the animosity between your in-laws and you. Depending on their age, each child may have some conscious thoughts or concerns about the situation. They may not be able (or willing) to discuss these with you; in fact, they may not be entirely conscious of their concerns.

As you probably know from your own experience, when a concern or fear is unclear, it often takes on a life of its own, causing levels of anxiety and other emotions far beyond the level that one would expect. This is due to the unconscious (emotional, insecure, triggered) child mind making us feel that the situation is far more problematic than it is. The reason that we do this as adults is that, when triggered, our adult mind is co-opted by our childhood-based emotions—those based on the magical thought that is inherent in the thought processes of children.

I cannot tell you exactly what to say to each of your children, or whether anything should be said at all. This would be dependent on the ages and levels of maturity, among other factors. I think, however, that it is important for your kids’ thoughts and feelings about your relationship with your in-laws to be rooted in fact. This way, their imaginations are less likely to run wild—or for them to simply make assumptions that are untrue (like, “It is okay to ignore your parents” or “My mother dislikes people for no reason” or “My grandparents are bad people).

Hopefully, your husband and you are on the same page in terms of how to approach these types of discussions with each child. It is important that they receive a unified message so that they are not left confused. Confusion could lead to further assumptions, which are often more problematic than the reality. Your husband and you should have a conversation about what to discuss with each child, focusing on each child’s personality, maturity, and any other personal factors. In this way, you can come up with a unified approach that will not be contradicted, either overtly or otherwise, by one another.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer

  www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200