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Special Needs Children and Grandparent Tensions

The Super-Glue Mom

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

You seem to be pretty good on trans-generational issues, especially where there’s a special needs child in the mix, so maybe you and your readers can help with this one. Goodness knows I’m out of ideas myself.

My husband and I live in Southern California, our families live back in England. We have two children and naturally their grandparents want to see them as often as possible. A very large part of our disposable income goes towards making that possible, and mostly we’re glad to make the financial outlay and in many ways our biennial UK trips are great fun.

However, my ten-year-old daughter has… issues. We’ve never had anything much of a diagnosis, beyond the vague “anxiety disorder,” but it’s now beginning to look like it might be juvenile onset bipolar disorder (this manifests quite differently to adult bipolar disorder). She is habitually irritable and frequently has huge, horrible meltdowns which erupt over nothing. My family, on the other hand, tend towards much less dramatic behavior (British repression, possibly?) and find my daughter’s behavior very hard to cope with. After much reluctance (with which I’m sure you can empathize) we’ve finally put her on medication, but we’re starting with a low dose and working up and it’s yet to take effect.

The biggest problems come when we see my mother. We have a very small home and so does she – combine that with an extremely volatile child and you have a recipe for discomfort. Added to this are the problems when my mother visits us – we only have two bedrooms, my daughter will not sleep in the same room as my mother (my mother snores and my daughter has sensory issues around noise), and also finds the idea of someone else invading her space extremely stressful.

My mother and I both work very hard to try and make sure things run as smoothly as possible. My mum is aware of how difficult it is for us when she visits, and tries to be as considerate a guest as possible, and tries to avoid expressing her disapproval of the way my daughter behaves and things like my haphazard attitude to housework. The trouble is, I know her too well, and I’m all too painfully aware of how hard she’s trying and how much she’s disapproving. She also finds my daughter’s meltdowns distressing, and when my daughter’s anger is directed towards her, as it often is, she finds that very painful – and expresses that pain as, you’ve guessed it – more suppressed disapproval.

I, on the other hand, am constantly trying my hardest to smooth over everyone’s hurt feelings and do everything in my power to make my mum and my daughter comfortable, which tends to result in my stress levels going through the roof. I frantically clean the house in anticipation of her visits because some part of me believes that by putting more and more effort into preparation I can make the visit a success. Of course, me being stressed rubs off on the rest of the family, which makes my daughter’s behavior still more volatile – and the vicious cycle continues.

My husband and my son (age 7), on the other hand, deal with the atmosphere when she is here by withdrawing into themselves, which as you can imagine, improves the atmosphere immensely. I’m not even sure my husband is really aware he’s doing it, and unfortunately, to someone else, it looks like he’s being cold and unfriendly.

My mother loves her grandchildren, and I would hate to deny her access to them. On one occasion she house-sat for a friend of ours while she was visiting, so she was sleeping elsewhere, which gave us all a bit of space, but this was only a partial solution – things were still very rough during the day, and so I’m not sure a hotel would help much even if any of us could afford it. Besides, last time we visited my father (he and my mother are divorced) he put us up in a hotel; and even though I knew it was the best solution for everybody, given my daughter’s behavioral difficulties, I felt so rejected I cried for half a day. I can’t do that to my mother.

I’ve been to therapists about this, and it’s something we’ve been actively working on with my daughter’s therapist for years, but there’s not been much in the way of results. Frankly I’m sick of therapy, and was kind of hoping you might have a fresh angle from which we could come at this?

Expat Brit.

Oh, you poor thing. This all sounds horribly stressful. I think I developed at least three new nervous tics just reading your letter.

You’re working so. Damn. Hard. At these visits, because in your head, they are the Right Thing To Do and Important and We Will Be A Family and We Will Bond Across The Continents No Matter What. And then when everybody is miserable because reality is a big ol’ bitch, you’re putting all the blame on yourself. And yet you don’t want to stop the visits because GUILT GUILT GUILT, even though that’s rarely a good motivation for doing things, and so someone purchases a plane ticket and the whole awful cycle begins again.

I believe you that there are good times and fun aspects of the visits, but there’s also — in just a few short paragraphs — perfectionism, panic, meltdowns, mental health triggers, passive aggressiveness, hurt feelings, disapproval, avoidance, anger and guilt. That’s…an awful lot of dysfunction. And none of it is good for you, and (since you probably rank your own feelings/needs way below everybody else’s) none of it is not good for your DAUGHTER. And it’s really probably not solidifying any great long-term grandchild/grandparent relationship to be regularly pushing everybody into these stressful, fraught situations. “BOND, DAMMIT,” you’re yelling at the void. “WE’RE A FAMILY. WE LIKE EACH OTHER.”

(In response, the void decides to give you the silent treatment, right after it sighs over the clutter on your kitchen counter.)

When you’ve got a special needs kid with a litany of known triggers, and that child has not yet acquired adequate coping skills for those triggers, it’s really in everybody’s best interest to avoid those triggers as much as possible. Let her do some controlled listening therapy to deal with her audio sensory problems — don’t ask her to bunk with someone who snores and freaks her out and ruins her sleep night after night. Let her have her meltdowns surrounded by people who get it, and her — instead of bringing in someone who you know (and I bet your daughter knows) is going to be impatient and judge-y about something the poor kid can’t help right now.

Your daughter is going through a big transition, on the cusp of a pretty serious diagnosis that will change a lot of things, and beginning a new medication that isn’t helping yet. So I really don’t think it’s a terrible, awful thing to be honest with your family that you need to pause the visits. Just imagine your daughter had a physical illness instead of a mental one —you probably wouldn’t even hesitate to keep her protected from anything (and everyone) who might possibly make her sicker. It’s really the same deal here. She’s not well right now. Travel and schedule disruptions and houseguests invading her space just aren’t doable for her, and only make her symptoms worse.

Hopefully, in six months or a year, you’ll have her illness more under control and visiting will be possible again. For now, just…stop. Give yourself permission to stop. For everybody’s sake, including yours. Because damn. You tried. It’s not working. It’s not your fault. It’s not your daughter’s fault, either. It’s just how life is sometimes.

Install Skype or FaceTime. Let the kids have individual video chats with their grandparents. Send them photos, video messages, add “write a letter to grandma and grandpa” as a monthly homework goal. It’s going to be okay. You’re not denying anyone access — you’re just going to get creative so the access and relationships are more positive and less stressful. Focus on your immediate family for now, and yourself, and release yourself from the obligation to be the cross-continent super-glue that holds everything together.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Kerry

    March 28, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    I just wanted to chime in how meaningful receiving letters from my British (ok, Canadian and living in California, but she very much identified as British because her parents came from England just before she was born, and she said again differently than the rest of us) grandmother was when I was a child. I must have been about four when she sent the first one, and by late elementary school she was the main reason I had an email account. We also visited a couple of times a year, but she had trouble getting along with either of my parents so those visits could be volatile, and even when they weren’t she was distracted by the obligation to act as a hostess towards the adults while my brother and I tried to be well behaved and unobtrusive kids. So I guess what I’m saying is that even though an in person visit might seem like the best possible form of bonding time, don’t discount the potential of good old fashioned correspondence (another word my grandmother used and normal people didn’t).

  • emah

    March 28, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    It’s true!  We do a once-a-year pilgrimage to see my parents (we live in the midwest, they live in the Pacific Northwest).  The kids are 2 and 4 now, and we drive, so it’s a pretty big investment of time.  My kids know their grandparents through the visits, but what keeps them connected is a flow of gifts and letters and Skype calls throughout the year.

    My 4-year-old knows which toys and sweaters Nana has sent her, and makes pictures at preschool for me to take pictures of and send to Nana, and then Nana will call and they will chat about it.  It confines the interaction to a time that she can choose, but it 

    • emah

      March 28, 2014 at 12:47 pm

      (itchy trigger finger) builds the relationship in small, everyday sorts of ways, which is how real family relationships get built.  There’s nothing like sharing daily minutiae to create bonds.

  • Daisy

    March 28, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    I would also suggest that when you are ready to start visiting again, that your family meets at a neutral 3rd place. Even if financially it means seeing each other once a year rather than twice, I think you all need some space when you are visiting. Rent a house at a location that fits your style- beach, mountains, city, country side, etc., where everyone has lots of room and no one is judging anyone’s housekeeping or decor. No one feels shunted- you are all in a new place together- and you can focus on the fun parts of the visit and exploring new territory.

    • Kerry

      March 28, 2014 at 6:56 pm

      Speaking of which, does your family like camping? Camping can be a great, inexpensive way to give everyone in the family their space while also forcing a more casual approach to “housekeeping.” If you can find a good family friendly campground, it can be especially great for the kids because not driving everywhere means that a ten year old can be pretty independent.

  • Melanie

    March 28, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    Skype is a godsend! We are in a different position that our family is all in-state but my in-laws live the farthest from us and always have an excuse to not make the trip. Skype has taken a lot of pressure off of us to be the ones always traveling (with a small child, soon to be children). It’s nice to have the in-person visits but the regular face to face time we get on Skype keeps them closer and makes the transition less awkward if we haven’t been up to visit in a while.

  • MC

    March 28, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    I was the kid with the anxiety disorder many years ago (before anxiety disorders were so common) that got all freaked out by travel plans. My mom thought I was being spoiled and difficult. So, first off, you’re doing your daughter a great service by being so understanding. I agree with Amy. Hold off on travel. My mom planned BIG! Cross country! Plane trips and train trips to Disney world and beaches, etc. right at the peak of my panic disorder. And it sucked. Because I tried so hard to please everyone, and got all worked up and naturally, causes myself to panic. (Like, we had to leave Disney, I fainted and my dad had to sit with me in a hotel while my mom was with my sister.)
    So take it easy. Don’t beat yourself up. Your daughter will thank you in the future.

  • kimm

    March 28, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    Skype is great. We just started doing it. It is eating up all our disposable income& future college $ for the kids, to travel twice a year to visit family, so we are having to make a change to save for our kids’ sake.

  • IrishCream

    March 28, 2014 at 9:20 pm

    So this advice is a little hypocritical, because it’s not something I can easily do myself. But maybe you’re more evolved than I am, so I thought I’d throw it out there.

    R.e. your mom’s veiled disapproval–would it help your mood a little to reframe the way you look at it? Your mom might not be able to control her gut reaction to your housekeeping or your daughter’s behavior. That’s pretty normal, really. Maybe your daughter’s sensitivity to her surroundings is a family trait, and your mom shares it. The important thing is that your mom is controlling, to the best of her ability, the reaction she’s showing to you. She is trying to do better and to be supportive. You can see that she is trying hard, but it’s a good thing that she’s trying, at least.

    Now, if she’s not actually trying all that hard, or slipping in passive-aggressive comments, that’s different, and infuriating. But if she is giving it her best shot, maybe that takes some of the pressure off you. Maybe she’s beating herself up over her reaction just as much as you’re giving yourself a hard time.

  • Susan:)

    March 29, 2014 at 12:56 am

    Wow, twice a year trips to another country?  Yeah, that’s got to be stressful!  When I was growing up, we were lucky to make the drive across several states to visit family once every four years or so. And that was our only vacation. So I got to see my grandmas about that often. It would’ve been nice if we could have seen each other more often, because I didn’t feel really close to them. But we did still love each other and all. And my favorite thing was when they sent me postcards and birthday cards.  I agree with the person who said try doing letter exchanges. They can build a good relationship through letters or email, and that would take the pressure off everyone to be behaving perfectly all the time. 

    • Wendy

      April 2, 2014 at 5:20 pm

      Wow! You gave me insight into this issue that I have with my own mom.. thanks for that!

  • Angie

    March 29, 2014 at 1:34 am

    I think Amy’s advice is spot on. As a bipolar adult, there are times when I am On My Game and Times When I Am Off My Game. Holidays with travel and family expectation and tradition when I am either at the peak or the trough of my mood cycle are Hell on Earth. Also, I had Difficult Grandparents.

    Nothing I ever did was right. The disapproval was strong. If I wanted to play in my mom’s old bedroom and try on her prom dresses, I was making a mess. My mom’s old swing set was “too dangerous.” My sister and I made a rope swing but weren’t allowed to play on it because “it looked like a noose.” (Cue Ultimate Awkwardness when my mom had to explain what that was to us…) The kids in the neighborhood were “bad kids,” and we weren’t allowed to talk to them. We were often told we were being too noisy, but when I busted out the Babysitter’s Club books, I was told that reading quietly was “being sulky.” We just couldn’t win. Eventually the tension became unbearable.

    I wonder if there’s something your mom and daughter could find in common to chat about on Skype? I’m thinking Harry Potter or Dr. Who. They could each watch an episode or read a chapter and talk about it. They could play through Pottermore together from afar. This way they can find common ground without the pressure to, like, Love Each Other and Be On Our Best Behavior.

    Dr Who and Harry Potter have the added benefit of not only popular with your daughter’s age group but they are also British. Perhaps when visits resume, your daughter could look forward to visiting Wales, where Dr. Who is filmed, or take the Harry Potter tour of London, visiting King’s Cross station or Charing Cross Road. Getting excited about silly British pop culture could help your daughter understand a little bit more about where you grew up, maybe?

  • z

    March 29, 2014 at 10:44 am

    I don’t know if this is any comfort, but lots of families use hotels during visits.  I have a little townhouse in DC, and my parents started doing it when I had kids, because they wanted to sleep through the night unlike my daughters Yelly McScreamalot and Little Miss Colicpants.  It was such a gift not having to worry about their comfort, make up their bed, feed them breakfast, etc. etc. etc., it really made me enjoy the visit more.  I did feel a little rejected the first time, but a little breathing room made the visit so much less stressful for everyone.  We also stayed in a hotel when my grandma got to an age that having houseguests was too hard for her.

    I think it’s a pretty normal way to cope when people don’t have a lot of spare bedrooms.  It’s certainly a lot cheaper than owning a bigger house!  When I win the lottery I would love to have a really big place where everyone would enjoy staying together.  But until then, making everyone crabby with overcrowding and sleep deprivation is not the answer.  Let go of the ideal and ask yourself what really works for the family and the house you actually have.

    If you use a hotel for your folks, maybe you could make it more home-like with flowers or a care package in their hotel room, some snacks and pictures your kids drew or whatever. 

  • Melissa

    March 29, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    All the comments seem to be taking biennial to mean twice a year, but the word actually means every two years, so I’m not sure if the commenters are wrong or the OP is wrong…

  • Rachel

    March 29, 2014 at 10:27 pm

    So, I’m just going to throw this out there. I wonder if your daughter is picking up on your mother’s disapproval the same way you are. If you were anxious, just trying to feel safe, you might not want someone around who you think disapproves of your behavior. I know grandchild-grandparent relationships can be special, but it’s best not to force it. Sometimes they just don’t mesh, or sometimes they don’t mesh until kids are older, and that’s fine. It can be hard to accept that family relationships are different from how you imagined, but it’s okay if not everyone is close and gets along. It’s more important to help your daughter feel safe and work through her issues than to force family relationships.

    I just want to add that some of the healthiest families I know use hotels for visits. I’ll be honest, I always wished that my grandparents had stayed in hotels when visiting rather than me having to sleep on the living room floor. It can be hard to adjust if it isn’t something your family has done before, but it could end up being a positive change.

  • z

    March 30, 2014 at 11:01 am

    I used to love hotels as a kid.  We would always stay in this same gross Econo Lodge and it was spectacular.  Cable TV OMG!!!!  We were allowed to jump on the bed AT THE SAME TIME AS WATCHING CABLE TV!!!!  And they would have the continental breakfast buffet, with all the little boxes of cereal, and the juice machine, and sneak back and “steal” another box of cereal for later.  And they had this swimming pool with no water in it, and we would go in there with our our Rollerblades.  Having never been to Disney, we thought it was the Happiest Place on Earth.

    Of course, this was all part of my mom’s clever scheme.  We would “get our ya-yas out” in the morning and annoy the Econo Lodge staff rather than annoying our relatives.  And in order to partake of these luxuries, we had to promise to be very, very good for the rest of the day! 

  • DontBlameTheKids

    March 31, 2014 at 10:19 am

    Of course you don’t want to let go of your family, and it’s so easy for one missed visit to really be the end of everything. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Letters, email, postcards, Skype…we have so many ways to keep in touch now. Make a weekly date to Skype, or weekly email rundown of everything going on. Same time, same day, every week. Set an alarm. 

    Your daughter’s health is so important, and although your mom isn’t trying to harm her, she is certainly putting a kink in the whole thing.

    Good luck to you!

  • Marnie

    March 31, 2014 at 11:45 am

    Your commentary about her supposed disapproval hit very close to home for me. We live in DC, my mother lives in MI and we see her about 2 times a year. However, because I, too, “know her so well”, I would endlessly stress out about her visit ahead of time because all I saw around me were things she would disapprove plus I would be anticipating her commentary or reactions to how I parent my own children compared to hers. None of which, by the way, would actually happen so I’d end up being needlessly stressed the whole visit and not be able to enjoy it I’ve since come to find out that I have a light form of General Anxiety Disorder plus depression. I’m on medication and it has made things SO MUCH BETTER. This past Christmas was the first time with her visiting that I was able to not to stress out ahead of time before her showing up. My point being….talk about more of that with your therapist to try to better understand where that’s coming from. And if it’s not working with your current therapist, maybe it’s time for a new one. You just might not have found the right person yet. I have also found that the feeling of not wanting to deal with therapy anymore usually stems more from a place of ‘I’m scared to get to the actual root cause of this problem” versus it not working. Good luck!

  • Hillary

    April 1, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Another option is for your parents to perhaps come for a longer visit and rent a nearby house. Not sure if they’re retired or not, but if they are, you could look on or and then have them stay for a few weeks in your same city. It wouldn’t disrupt your routines quite as much, and it would take the pressure off of the forced visit.