We have a wonderful son-in-law that we love very much. Our concern is that he yells at his children, not in just a loud voice but in a THUNDERING voice that even scares my husband and me. It is a learned habit from his father. I think it is so ingrained in him that he doesn’t realize he is even yelling. It is something we didn’t see until they had their children. Our daughter is concerned and they have discussed it and I know he is trying to change but it just seems like the slightest irritation sets him off. To me this is bullying and my fear is that it could turn physical. I don’t want my grandchildren to grow up thinking this is normal and how they should treat their own children. Is there hope and help for him to change this habit?
I have no doubt this is very unsettling for you and your husband to see your son-in-law overreacting to his children and overwhelming everyone with his intensity. I also agree with you that his yelling isn’t the best way to interact with his children. Addressing this with him, though, isn’t as straightforward as telling him to “knock it off.” Chances are, he’s developed these reflexes over time and may not even think there is a problem.
First, if you’re seriously worried about your children being abused through his aggression, you need to level with your daughter and let her know how serious this is. She may be so used to his intensity or feel torn between choosing her husband and protecting her children that she may not make any decision out of emotional paralysis. This is a difficult judgment call to make with yelling and intensity. If safety is a concern, don’t wait and see what happens. Talk to your daughter and let her know she needs to be more protective of her children.
This doesn’t mean that she needs to automatically call child protective services. It means that she needs to set some clear boundaries with her husband and make it clear that he cannot interact with the children in this way anymore. She needs to encourage him to get help if it’s something he can’t see as a problem or control. This is something that needs to come from her as the wife and mother. If she has approached you with her concerns, turn her back to the marriage and encourage her to speak clearly to him about these expectations.
I think it’s important to be patient and follow your daughter’s lead as she works with him as a co-parent and partner to learn how to parent. Sometimes grandparents forget their own learning curve with their children years ago when they had to figure out how to raise their children by trial and error. Even though you have gained hard-earned wisdom from years of raising your own children, your daughter and son-in-law also deserve a chance to learn from their mistakes.
As you turn to heaven for help for this young family, remember that you’re not the only parents concerned for their welfare. In 1963, President Harold B. Lee taught, “Sometimes we think the whole job is up to us, forgetful that there are loved ones beyond our sight who are thinking about us and our children. We forget that we have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother who are even more concerned, probably, than our earthly father and mother, and that influences from beyond are constantly working to try to help us when we do all we can.”[i]
If your daughter feels the situation is serious enough to reach for help, then continue to encourage her to be strong and set clear expectations with her husband to treat the children with more respect. If you step in and get in the middle of their marriage, it will only create more defensiveness and make it more difficult for him to focus on doing the right thing. Instead, he’ll be more likely to protect himself and focus less on creating a healthy family environment.
If you have a close relationship with him, you can even visit with him privately and share with him your observations about his frustrations as a dad. You might open up about your own mistakes and struggles when you were parents of small children. Let him know he’s not alone and that he can count on you to help him succeed as a father. This will only work if you have a close relationship with him that has already been built on mutual respect and trust. If you don’t have that kind of relationship, it will backfire and he will only feel judgment and disrespect.
As grandparents, you can offer to take the children more often and give them an experience of being loved and disciplined with respect and sensitivity. You can help alleviate the pressure their parents may feel and you can develop relationships with them that will help them build more resilience. If the grandchildren aren’t in serious danger, trust that their parents will continue to improve as you counsel with your daughter and give them room to learn and grow as parents. It’s painful to watch them make mistakes and struggle as new parents. However, they are ultimately responsible for the climate they create in their family. You’ve had your chance to raise your daughter and all you can do is trust that she will take what she learned in her family and advocate for a healthy environment for their children.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com).