Tell Me About It: ‘My grandson, who is mildly autistic and has ADHD, was called disgusting’
PROBLEM: My daughter and daughter-in-law have had a falling out. My daughter-in-law complained about my daughter’s son, who is mildly autistic and has ADHD. He is 13 years old and is a credit to his parents. My daughter and her husband are extremely protective of him. He put his finger in a jar of peanut butter and my daughter-in-law called him “disgusting”. This happened a few months ago and, when I talk to my son or daughter, I can’t talk about the other’s family.
My husband and I are so upset about the whole thing. I hate confrontation, I don’t want to bring it up with my daughter-in-law as I am not good in these situations. My daughter has put up with a lot over the years from one of my son and daughter-in-law’s children, who was very challenging. He’s much better now.
ADVICE: You have two issues here. One is your general fear of conflict and the specific conflict happening in a very significant relationship in your life. The other is that your grandson is being called disgusting for something any kid might do. The fact that your grandson has ADHD requires that all the important adults in his life become educated on the topic and are able to support him in managing the condition.
Most people do not like conflict and yet we know that conflict often offers us rich possibilities for change or improvement
As the grandparent, you hold an important role in the lives of all your grandchildren, however it is as a parent that you are called to act now. Your son, who is married to the woman who expressed disgust, needs to be involved in a conversation with you where you ask him to intervene so that a 13-year-old boy is not made feel shame or belittlement because of his actions or his condition. If this is left unattended the legacy will be one where children carry the inactions of the elders, and this can lead to a life of stigma and embarrassment.
Rather than start with your daughter-in-law, you might first talk to your son about your concerns and ask for his thoughts on how to create an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance in the extended family. He may have ideas of how to approach his wife in a way that allows her not to lose face. However, you do have to be firm in your assertion that a child with ADHD, or any condition, will get the best possible treatment from your family and you can spearhead this by setting the standard for respectful interactions. If you do not address injustice when it arises then in some way you are contributing to its continuance, so silence is not an option. If the conversation with your son goes well then you can follow his plan for intervention, but if this does not happen the responsibility goes back to you to tackle the prejudice.
It may take many conversations to resolve this conflict, so be prepared and determined to keep the conversation live until a resolution is reached
As for the broader issue, most people do not like conflict and yet we know that conflict often offers us rich possibilities for change or improvement. For example, we might complain about a service we have received, and the result is that we are listened to, taken seriously and follow-up actions ensue. In that scenario, we may move from being a complainant to becoming a supporter of that service. In a way, making a complaint is a way of demonstrating respect for the person and thinking well enough of them to know that they can change for the better. It is for their sake that you go to the trouble of engaging with them. The possibility here is that you do not think that your daughter-in-law is worth the trouble and if this is true, then you have another problem on your hands. So first check your own attitude, if it needs changing from one of scepticism to one of openness, then make the change before speaking to your daughter-in-law. Be clear that you are asking for a high level of respect for all the grandchildren and that this is a firm line for you.
Ask her for her thoughts on what the children (including her own) need in terms of bottom-line consideration and be brave enough to ask her to extend this particularly to her nephew who needs extra support. If you are not clear, or you fudge it, she will not get the message clearly and you will have focused on your own fear rather on the needs of your grandchild and extended family. It may take many conversations to resolve this conflict, so be prepared and determined to keep the conversation live until a resolution is reached. There are two men who are also part of this engagement, your husband and son, and they should be included in the discussions so that the issue is not misconstrued as a difficulty between you and your daughter-in-law.
All of you need to lean in so that the whole extended family can have a solid foundation to rely on in times of need.