Q: I’m a happily married mother of four. A few years ago, my visiting mother-in-law became verbally abusive and struck our 2-year-old daughter. Now she wants to re-enter her grandchildren’s lives, but she will not apologize for her rage or even address it. Can someone permanently cut off a relative who is truly toxic and refuses to change?
A: As a parent, your primary job is to protect your children. It is truly sad when doing so means you must limit or terminate other important family relationships.
And, yes — there are some situations where a relationship with a relative is so horrific that you shouldn’t maintain it. This might or might not be one of them.
You need to tell your mother-in-law that she cannot be with the children unless she can absolutely assure you that her abusive behavior will never happen again. In other words, she will have to discuss this incident with you. If she refuses to, that would indeed be reason for terminating your relationship with her, at least temporarily.
You should approach the topic delicately. If she won’t even talk about what happened, it’s possible you are broaching the subject in a way that makes her defensive.
And you should involve your husband.
It’s possible that you and your husband could ease into a revived relationship with her by visiting with her alone, without the children. Let her know you want her in your lives, but inform her that you are concerned about her past behavior, and that she must not yell at the children or hit them.
If she acknowledges her past behavior and agrees to curb herself, visits are in order. However, they should not be unsupervised — you, your husband or someone else you trust should be present at all times. Visits shouldn’t be lengthy or unstructured.
If this idea angers her, or if it is somehow unworkable, you have to tell her that she will not have access to her grandchildren unless matters are resolved. I agree with you — hitting a child is unacceptable. Period. There is nothing to be gained by doing so. Ever. It is traumatic for the child and can escalate into permanent injury. While discipline is fine, corporal punishment is not.
Maybe your mother-in-law will soften over time. Whether or not she does, the kids will grow up, so they won’t remain defenseless toddlers for long.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: A bad family relationship can be detoxified, but it’s not enough for one side to want it — all sides need to. If efforts fail, there are some relationships so unpleasant you have no choice but to end them.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her new book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was recently published by Riverhead Books. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2005 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.