Protecting teen daughters from Grandma abuse

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Question: My mother was a pretty good mom until I turned into a teenager, and then she became verbally and (occasionally) physically abusive. This has continued into my adulthood, so I try to be around her only when there are witnesses.

I have three girls. For each one, her good grandma-ing stopped once they became teens, and then she became overly critical, rude, and simply nasty. Again, I do my best so they won't be alone with her. My daughters know the score, and they dismiss her crazy.

My brother and sister-in-law are adopting a 12-year-old girl. I have already heard Grandma describing newest granddaughter as a Mean Girl and a brat to family who haven't met her yet.

My brother was lucky enough to be a teen boy, so he didn't get the same treatment from her. Do I mention this to my brother and sister-in-law? Do I give them a heads-up so they can be sure to supervise Grandma's interactions with a kid who has already had a metric crap-ton of bad experiences?

I worry I'll sound crazy, as my brother has never noticed any of this; his other kiddos are boys. I know my sister-in-law will stick up for the daughter, but it would be nice if she didn't have to experience it at all.

Answer: Absolutely say something to your brother and sister-in-law. You can't let an already traumatized child wander into this without fair warning. Have anecdotes from your childhood handy; your brother may not have gotten the brunt of it, but he was a witness, no? His hearing these stories with your narration vs. his could deliver an aha-moment or two.

Even if he thinks you're crazy, you'll be giving him a frame through which to view interactions between Grandma and his daughter, allowing him to see danger sooner than he would without your priming. Plus, your sister-in-law won't have the same baggage as your brother and therefore, properly armed with your warning, can mother-bear her new daughter accordingly.

I know this isn't what your question is about, but it does sound as if your mom was put through some kind of hell when she hit puberty herself, no? What a potent and weirdly specific misogyny.

Question: I was always taught that the proper response to an invitation is either to say you will attend or will not attend, without an explanation of the reasons. I prefer that - I don't necessarily want to explain why this event is the same day as a doctor's appointment or that event conflicts with my work schedule.

However, I have noticed that people usually ask me why I can't make it if I simply say, "I'm sorry I can't make it." Do I need to give an explanation? Or could I just repeat, "I can't make it" until they stop asking?

Answer: Sure. Or, "I have a conflict, I'm sorry."

It's the same thing as "I can't make it," but in different words, which softens it.

Anything further, and we all need the South's brilliant "Bless your heart" - too bad I can't pull it off myself.

tellme@washpost.com.

Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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