Dear Rachel,

My husband and I feel it is very important that our children have a close relationship with their grandparents. The problem is that my parents are always fighting and using terrible language, even when the children are present. How can we maintain a relationship with the family and yet protect our children from this situation?

Kelly W.

Dear Kelly,

The question you are asking is important on a number of levels. Often parents will fight, or others will fight around children, and the assumption is that they are too young to understand. This is simply not true. Children from a very young age are aware if there is fighting or stress in their environment. This is so much the case that there is even a Jewish custom discussed that a woman who is angry shouldn’t nurse her baby, as her anger will affect her milk (not to mention her milk flow.) How much more so for a child who is already verbal and an absolute sponge for everything he or she experiences.

The fact that you want to maintain a strong relationship with your family is not only admirable but important. The thing is that you cannot sacrifice the well-being of your children to do so, and obviously, you cannot build a healthy relationship between them and your parents if the environment itself isn’t healthy. With as much respect as possible, it is vital that you explain to your parents that when they fight around you and the children, it upsets everyone. The children do not understand why they are screaming, and even if they have not yet, very often children will blame themselves for the problems.

It also needs to be made clear to your parents that if they use inappropriate language, you simply will not be able to have your children around them. Perhaps, if the fighting mainly takes place when your mother and father are together, you could suggest them keeping their distance while you visit. You could spend the morning doing something with one parent and the afternoon with the other. If there are times that they are together and you sense that fighting is about to begin, that is the time to gather the kids and go out for a drive, or to the supermarket. You should simultaneously explain to your parents why you are leaving and that you will return when things calm down.

Another option is not going to visit them but having them visit you, perhaps together, or maybe even better, separate. Often, people are more quick to fight or be loose at the mouth in their own home. When people however are guests, they often naturally put on their best behavior. Maybe if they are in your home and more on your terms, they will be less likely to act in an inappropriate way.