Editorials for Clinical Practice
CHADIS Co-Director and President, Dr. Barbara Howard is a regular contributor to the Behavioral Consult column of Pediatric News and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Dr. Howard is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician trained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton at Harvard University. She is a national speaker on child behavior problems and is a past president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. She was a contributing author for Bright Futures™, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care (DSM-PC) and Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health and has served on national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
ALERT: Grandmother in the room!
One of the things that makes pediatrics challenging and potentially rewarding is that there are often multiple family members in the room for our visits.
With an expansion of our acknowledged role safeguarding and promoting a child’s current and future health to include asking about environmental and caregiving influences comes some tricky dynamics. The parent is in the room with a teen who has a secret love life. A father is in the room with the mother he threatens at home. The mother is in the room with the preschooler she has hit. There is risk but also opportunity for valuable discourse, discovery, and healing.
We now know that about 50% of the future morbidity of the child before us will be determined by the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) they experience during the exact years (0-18) they are under our health supervision. Many of these risk factors come from home life and may be preventable or at least moderated. When we begin screening for ACEs we are asking the parents about bad things that happened when they were growing up.
The dilemma that came up recently was the grandmother in the room with the daughter she raised who is now caring for her own child. In this situation, you may be in the presence of the person whom the parent feels inflicted – or failed to prevent – the hurts being discussed.
“How are things at home?” you ask dutifully. Mother says “Fine,” but rolls her eyes. Grandma, sitting in the room looking at her phone, says something to the mother in a foreign language. You are in the dark, but sense friction.
Even in modern times, it is respectful to address the grandparent who is present first in a visit, introducing yourself, and finding out the relationship and living situation. Previsit questionnaires can help set visit priorities and alert you to what topics may be better discussed in private, perhaps including ACEs. It is important to ask the parent permission to discuss potentially sensitive topics when the grandparent is present or ask for the grandparent to step out of the room.
Why not just be sure the grandmother stays in the waiting room? If the hurts from the past still are affecting the mother now, moderating an open conversation about those experiences can be very valuable to reducing their impact on present parenting or dysfunctional coping strategies.
Some experts say that any enumeration of ACEs should include asking “Which of these are still bothering you now?” Saying, “Parenting often brings up memories of similar situations from when we were young that can tilt how we act toward our own children,” then asking, “Can we talk about those experiences you had?”
Eliciting the grandparent’s perspective with a question such as “What were those years of parenting like for you?” respects the significance of the grandparent’s role. The grandparents probably were young, stressed, and inexperienced when they were the mother’s primary caregivers. Or the grandparent may have gratefully erased memories of the tough moments but the parent clearly remembers the childhood pain, because hurts sear themselves into our brains more than positive or neutral experiences do. She or he may have been holding resentment against the grandparent and living it out for years and now in her/his parenting.
Suddenly, you and the parent may hear the grandparent reveal other factors that would never have been visible to the child then and may never have been brought up because the grandparent was working three jobs because the father was deployed; caring for a sick sibling; suffering from depression; being subject to an abusive alcoholic spouse; having to keep the children inside because of shooting in the neighborhood, etc. You may be able reframe what is said to point out that the grandparents “did the best they could at the time and with the resources and skills they possessed then.”
Mothers who had troubled relationships with their own mothers (e.g. insecure attachment) tend to pass these patterns down in their own parenting unless they have processed the experiences and come to a place of acceptance. People may process their past effectively on their own, some through mental health counseling or religion, but for others a brief “Ah ha!” moment may help settle the waters.
Ask the grandparent as well as the parent, “What are you hoping will go differently than when [parent] was growing up?” Some try to make up for what they see as their own mistakes by advocating coming down harder on their grandchildren than they did on their own. An example among my patients was the grandmother whose daughter had become a heroin user, who was very strict and critical in her determination that her granddaughter would not fall into the wrong crowd. Voicing this for her as a possible reason for her strident posture dramatically shifted her attitude.
Other times parents, maybe grateful for a place to live with the grandparents but also trapped there financially, are simmering with anger at the grandparents’ intrusions into their parenting choices. It can be useful to point out that grandparents, no longer caught up in careers, may feel the need to be useful and have a role by giving advice or bustling around cleaning and buying things for their grandchildren. Hey, any help can be welcome if you don’t take it as meaning you are not doing a good job! Although limits can be set.
Transitioning to regarding one’s grown child as an adult and letting them make their own choices and mistakes, waiting until asked for advice, can take a lot of tongue biting after years of active parenting. One essay I read about an adult’s fond memories of his father included the realization that some of the best parenting he recalled was when his father left things unsaid.
Cultural differences in parenting between grandparent and parent can be another source of stress. Assimilation happens fast in America. The newest generation is often trying very hard NOT to be like the “old country.” The parents’ turning away from the grandparents’ culture or religion can threaten their values and culture for which they may have sacrificed everything. Advising the parent to celebrate at least some traditions may reduce the tension at little cost.
As of 2016, 5% of U.S. children in two-parent families lived with a grandparent and 15% of single parents do. This is much higher in certain ethnic groups where living with your adult children is expected. Even if not living together, their influence may be great. Many parents report more stress than support from grandparents. Negative mother-in-law stories abound! That is why simply asking if the parent “has anyone to help them” as a way of assessing social support can be very misleading. You also may ask “Is that more a help or a problem?”
When grandparents undermine the parents’ rules, of course, a family meeting is in order. But grandparents, with the wisdom of years and reduced life pressure, tend to care for children more generously and less critically than when they were main caregivers, conveying unconditional love that can buffer stresses and be remembered by the beloved child forever.
Dr. Howard is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS (). She reported no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to MDedge News. Email her at