Teaching Grandpa Some New Tricks

Dear Mr. Dad: My parents are divorced and my dad has been living in another state. He is now moving back home because he says he wants to develop a relationship with his grandchild (my son), who is four. Unfortunately, my father has anger management issues–he’s never been violent, but he does have verbal outbursts. He can be fine, but then something sets him off and he starts being verbally abusive. He says he can control himself now, but my husband and I are afraid to leave our son with him. On the other hand, I want my child to get to know his grandfather. What can we do?

A: You’re absolutely right to be concerned about entrusting your child to someone who has a history of abusive behavior—violent or otherwise—regardless of whether he’s a relative or not.

Your dad says he can control his outbursts. But how do you know? Has he been in anger management or been getting some other type of therapy, counseling, or professional help? I’m not saying people can’t change—of course they can. But it’s pretty unlikely that a lifelong habit would suddenly disappear all by itself. It’s certainly possible that your father has learned to keep his anger under wraps, but there’s no guarantee that it’ll stay that way. As you say, he can be fine one moment, then something (or someone) will spark his anger. You certainly don’t want that someone to be your four-year-old.

So does this mean that you should cut all your ties with Dad now that he’s back in town, or keep your son away from him forever? Not at all. In most cases, children can greatly benefit from a close and loving relationship with their grandparents, who can be a source of comfort, wisdom, and emotional support. But it’s important that you and your husband—not your father—are the ones in control of how, when, and where grandpa and grandson meet and bond.

I suggest that the first few get-togethers take place with you or another trusted family member tagging along. That way, if your dad starts to lose it, your son can be removed from the situation immediately. There’s a good chance that your father won’t like this idea very much (it’s easy to see how he might find it humiliating) and will insist that he should be able to spend time alone with your son. It won’t be easy, but you need to explain to him why that’s not going to happen—at least for a little while.

And tell him the truth. The fact that he says he’s a changed man is an indication that he acknowledges that his earlier behavior was problematic. As an adult, he needs to understand—and accept—the consequences, one of which is that there will be certain limits to his interactions with your child.  Fortunately, your son is young enough that he won’t think that there’s anything unusual about having you or someone involved in excursions with grandpa, so you won’t need to explain anything to him.

Over time, if everything goes well, you can gradually phase out the chaperone. However, if your dad’s reaction to these (hopefully temporary) limitations is anger or abuse, you’ll know that despite the claims, he really hasn’t changed.

The bottom line is this: he may be your father, but you have no obligation to satisfy him. You do, however, have a responsibility to protect your child from harm. His safety, which includes his physical and mental well-being, should always be your top priority.