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Child Caring

She's got a potentially toxic mother in law

Dear Barbara,

I have a problem with my mother in law. She always shouts at my 1 1/2 year old daughter as if she's 10 blocks away. She always freaks out at things and uses terrible bad words against my daughter. She lives in our house although her own house is just near our place. I already told this to my husband, but he will just say that I should give his mom a chance, that her bad words to my daughter like, "I will slap you in the face," "bullshit," are only jokes.

What will I do? I want my daughter to grow in an environment she deserves.

Thank you so much for your help.

From: Jellijones,

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Dear Jellijones,

The language you describe is no joke and I give you lots of credit for trying to do something about it early in your daughter's life. In fact, I'd go so far as to say this MIL is potentially toxic.

Here are a few reasons why this is a problem:

1. It's not just about the child, and it's not just about the words. Tone of voice counts. Children this age typically don't understand most of the language adults use, it's the tone of voice that conveys meaning. A grandma who shouts is not using a loving voice. Before she understands the meanness to the words grandma uses, your daughter could be turned off to grandma by the tone. I'm not saying she'll become afraid of grandma, but she likely won't be one of her favorite people. I've seen this play out in a few ways, none of them good. The most destructive is when, down the road, the grandparent accuses the parents of turning the child away from her, causing conflict in the parent's marriage. The gp typically may not accept accept responsibility for making this happen in the first place, but she's potentially creating the backlash herself and putting your marriage in jeopardy. I know, I know, this seems like a big leap. Any readers living proof of this, and wish they had weighed in with MILs early in the game?

2. Children imitate what we say. Since grandma is an everyday presence in her life, your daughter will likely pick up this language herself. When she says these words to friends -- or back at grandma -- it won't be a joke to anyone. It is not cute to hear a 3-year-old saying "B---s---." Oh, and guess who your MIL will blame when her granddaughter has a potty mouth?

3. Her words can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Your daughter could come to think less of herself because grandma is always yelling at her and putting her down, or, at the other extreme, she could decide she might as well be naughty because grandma always says she is.

Now I know this is a grandparent, not a parent. But as she grows, if she doesn't see her parents intervene on her behalf, your child will assume that mom and dad condone, or at least don't object to, what grandma says. All in all? Not a good situation.

It's not unusual for parents to have issues with in-laws; it fact, I'd say it's more common than not. One reason your husband may not be able to "take care of it" may be that he has unresolved issues with his mother, or that she's a strong personality.

So what do you do, exactly? Your MIL needs to know you mean business. That means you and your husband need to act together on this, as a couple.

Tell grandma specifically what is not OK, both the decibels, the tone of voice and the language. Sometimes a sense of humor can help. When this subject came up before, here, I liked this suggestion from Di: "The best tactic is 'OK, it was funny once, now that's enough.' It doesn't sound horribly offen[sive], it lets the person save face in that you are assuming (or at least affecting to assume) that they think they are clever or funny, but it just comes off badly."

Tell grandma that if she can't clean up her act, you will have to limit her exposure to your daughter, including not having her spend so much time in your home.