Grand Nonny

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

My husband and I quasi-adopted two teenaged boys twenty years ago.
Their mother was relieved and our sons think of them like brothers.
They have each grown into fine young men, employed in the trades,
and each married, and each now parenting. My husband loves the
“grandkids” but we have a very tough time with one of the mothers,
who constantly reprimands her children like they are violent offenders.
She yells at them that they are lying no matter what’s going on, and it
is clear that they are terrified of somehow upsetting her. We have
never observed any lying on their part, but have no reason to believe
she is abusing drugs or alcohol. When we have hinted that her children
are afraid of her, she seems pleased that “they won’t try to pull any
nonsense.” The husband either doesn’t notice or seems to agree. But
we are very disturbed. What can we do?

Grand Nonny

Dear Grand Nonny:

I am assuming that the abuse you are describing is psychological and
not physical. I’m not diminishing the impact, but if there are any signs
of physical harm it would be a little easier to get external help. In the
short run, I would start with a family intervention. Talk first to the
husband and his brother. Say how much you love them and value the
familial relationship. But express your concerns clearly and without
attempting to sugar coat them. Be very clear in the examples you
give. Ask both if they have observed anything that they find troubling.
Explain what bothers you in terms of short run and long run. Have
some citations about the impacts of psychological abuse on tap to
reinforce your point. End very simply by asking what the husband will

If that doesn’t work, you will need to address the mother directly. Be
clear this comes out of love for the whole family, and that you know
you are risking their esteem and even access to the children by
speaking up. But be clear that’s how important it is to you. And that
you are paying attention and will continue to do so. If you can afford
it, you might suggest anger management or family counseling on your
dime, just to put an exclamation point on the message. Above all,
monitor the children so they don’t carry these scars. Abuse is a
generational problem. Nip it in the bud!