My Daughter In Law – & Grandkids – Scapegoat Me. What Should I Do?
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Ask the Therapist – September 2019
I grew up feeling loved by my parents. But when I was about 13, I was bullied by kids at school, and my parents never dealt with it. From that point forward I felt insecure about my self worth and how much my parents really cared about me. My parents are deceased now, so I will never find out from them what held them back from protecting me. I suspect bullying was more ‘normalized’ 40 years ago.
My problem now is that my son married a woman who is an addict and a bully. She’s always in recovery from something – alcohol, food, exercise, prescription drugs. At some point my daughter in law made me the enemy, even though I have tried to support her.
In a nutshell, my daughter in law is manipulative and two faced – pretending to love me to my face, while attempting to turn my son and grandchildren against me behind my back. I know this because of some of the things my eldest grand kid (12) has let slip – eg “Mom said you are crazy grandma”. My son loves this woman and says he’s caught in the middle and doesn’t know what to do. He seems oblivious to the way his wife has undermined his self esteem and our relationship.
I would like a relationship with my son and grandkids, but my daughter in law is determined to drive a wedge between us. I’m scared of confronting her because I’m worried it could lead to estrangement. She’s caused some big family blow-ups, and blames everything on me. My son seems unaware of the big picture of what my daughter in law is up to. He and the kids think she’s great, and tend to side with her against me, as our visits are becoming more and more infrequent. What should I do?
This is a very tough situation for you, and it seems like you’ve been dealing with a lot of uncertainty, when it comes to family, since your early teens years. To begin with, you went through a difficult time having lost the sense of security you felt with your parents, as they were either unwilling or unable to step up and protect you from school bullies at a very critical time in your development from child to adult. I get the impression it really shook up your sense of emotional safety and value in a way that’s been difficult to rebound from, as it planted seeds of doubt regarding how much your parents really cared about you. There is still much denial and minimizing when it comes to bullying, in spite of a massive increase in public education regarding bullying over the past two decades. I suspect that 40 years ago, things were even more repressive – and regressive – than they are now when it comes to bullying. Regardless, this was a very hurtful experience for you that you clearly are still trying to come to terms with.
It’s tough to have endured childhood bullying without any kind of resolution or advocacy from your parents on your behalf. And to re-experience it as a mature adult with your daughter in law sounds very painful indeed. I get the impression that you feel very alone and misunderstood in this situation, particularly as you and your son are unable to reach an agreement about how to deal with the problem. It’s frustrating that your son is not able to deal with a destructive situation in a direct way. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon, due to widespread social misunderstanding about scapegoating, which at its essence is a form of family bullying.
When family abuse gets misconstrued as ‘personality differences’ or a power struggle, you can end up in the polarized situation you find yourself in. Power struggles are usually based on personal differences, and presume some degree of equal participation from all parties involved. Scapegoating in families is neither of these things. Family scapegoating is not about personality conflicts, but one sided attacks that center on dominance, censorship, power imbalances and tearing down the target. It’s intent is destruction of the scapegoat, not a difference of opinion.
It’s extremely painful to be stuck in this kind of family ‘triangle’ because the real problem is not acknowledged and, therefore, is not being dealt with. And if your daughter in law is struggling with addiction, she is likely having a hard time taking responsibility for her own behavior, and may be ‘coping’ by projecting blame onto others. Projection is a defense that takes the focus off of personal accountability by making the other person the problem. Very hurtful and unfair for you. It’s also troubling that there are children involved who appear to be encouraged to scapegoat their own grandmother.
As I don’t know the specific circumstances – if any – that lead to your daughter in law making you the enemy, I feel I don’t have enough information to assess the problem more deeply, but I do have a few perspectives and questions that may be helpful for you to ponder.
- Starting Points – You may have already attempted this, but have you spoken to your son about your intent – IE to have a positive relationship with him and his family, especially the children? That sets the stage for creating understanding. Stay with this intention at all costs. Do not allow yourself to get pulled into arguments, especially those which try to vilify you or make you the ‘bad guy’.
You can empathize with your son being ‘being caught in the middle’, but don’t get lured into false arguments. Instead, undefensively keep repeating your intention, which is to have a healthy relationship. Let your son know that you love him and want to support him. This will likely take discipline as, at this point, you will not be focused on addressing the wrongs that have been perpetrated against you, but on maintaining a fragile connection.
- Education/Information – Does your son have a basic understanding of scapegoating in families? Have you talked with him about the dissimilarity between disrespectful behavior and a difference of perspective? If not, and you think he may be receptive, then you might wish to share information with him, such as my articles. Providing information can be a more neutral way of beginning to build leverage, as it does not require that anyone change, but may open your son’s eyes to the damage being done to all of you. At the very least, it’s important that bullying be framed as a lack of civility and respect, and not falsely presented as personal differences.
- Getting Real – Given how defensive your daughter in law seems, I think it’s a good idea that you are not confronting her, as that will likely lead to increased conflict on her end. Let your son know that you don’t want to lose touch. Keep the focus on the importance of family, and ways to stay in contact with him and your grandchildren. This will likely require, at least temporarily, that you refrain from discussing the problematic behavior of your daughter in law with your son. The point here is to turn down the volume on any pressure your son might be feeling to choose sides.
At the same time, I am concerned that you feel ganged up on, which is certainly happening when your son and grandkids side with their mother against you. This is a poisonous situation which has the potential to escalate. You need to protect yourself, which includes setting boundaries. If the grandkids are disrespectful towards you, and their mother is not around, then it could be an opportunity to neutrally teach them about hurtful vs civil behavior. Perhaps there are some childrens books you could find to illustrate the point. See if you can get some agreement with your son about ‘good manners’, as the message that needs to be reinforced is that family should be a place where loyalty and caring are the norm.
If your son seems unable to understand the real problem, then you certainly don’t have to make yourself available for hurtful behavior. Decide what your bottom line is regarding how you want to be treated and be prepared to stand by it.
On the other hand, you may wish to make yourself available to your son to talk with, should he need some support. He may be in a codependent relationship with his wife and is likely feeling stressed. The point here is not to ignore the family scapegoat signs, or what you would like, but to rebuild an unpressured connection with your son. If you can keep things ‘strategically’ civil with your son, then your chances of having a relationship with your grandkids may fare better. Stick to neutral topics and keep your eye on the prize, but do not allow yourself to be available for scapegoating.
Finally, and this is very important, If there is any kind of residue of self doubt or low self worth left over from your childhood, when your parents did not stand up for you when you were bullied, then you may need to have a look at your own behavior or expectations that might be contributing to the problem. Ask yourself if there is anything you are doing that makes it easier for your daughter in law – and grandkids – to bully you? For example, are you too passive, too cooperative or too accommodating of disrespectful behavior? Do you appear unsure of yourself, etc? If so, you may benefit from therapy to help build up your sense of self worth.
Wishing you all the respect, love and connection you deserve!
Photo – Kelly Sikkema
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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counselor, Registered Clinical Counselor, specializes in recovery from Family Scapegoating, Narcissistic Abuse, Low Self Esteem, Chronic Anxiety, Estrangement Grief and Relationship Addiction.
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