The Atlantic

Editor's Note: Every Wednesday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I am 65 and have two grandchildren who live nearby. I’m concerned because the 5-year-old is still suckling at night before bed with his mom (even though there is no milk).

Problem is, he has been having trouble at preschool, kicking and hitting and biting his classmates. He had to leave school for a short time, but is back without issues. At home, though, now he will literally screech, throw tantrums, or bolt away at a high rate of speed when he doesn’t get his way. He regularly picks fights with his big sister and she does the same to him. He also rubs up against female strangers and children, acting like he wants them to snuggle him.

His mom and I don’t communicate well, but I think the little guy needs some help. His mom overreacts even when I ask a simple question. Her husband (my son) says that any whiff of criticism really upsets her.

I think there are some issues about attachment and that he needs some help. Any suggestions?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

The paradox of being a grandparent is that you don’t get to be the parent of your children’s children even though you love your grandchildren as if they were your own children. Of course, if your grandson were in danger or being abused, you would step in to protect him. But however you feel about extended breastfeeding—or, in this case, comfort nursing—unless it’s being done against the child’s will, it doesn’t fall into the category of abuse at this age.

At the same time, I can see why your grandson’s patterns of behavior concern you. After all, children (not to mention adults) communicate through their actions. A child who feels angry or anxious might bite or kick. A child who feels out of control may try to control a situation with a tantrum. A child who’s confused about boundaries might blur them by invading people’s physical space.

And yet, there could be many reasons why your grandson acts out. Maybe he struggles with self-control because he has a developmental delay and his parents aren’t aware of it or don’t want to share that private information with you. It could be, in fact, that comfort nursing is what helps your grandson calm himself and feel safe and soothed and self-regulated—in the way that snuggling with a stuffed animal or well-worn blanket might for a younger child. Even if something about the family’s interactions are affecting him—like, his parents are afraid to say no or set helpful boundaries—nursing may only be one part (if any) of it. In other words, it’s important to understand the larger context of what might be going on with your grandson.

You say that you and your daughter-in-law don’t communicate well, and while she may be particularly sensitive, it’s also true that she’s not your daughter. Based on the unwritten rules of in-law relationships, she may feel that whatever views you’d like to share should be discussed by you and your own child.

I wonder, then, if you know how your son feels about what’s going on in his child’s life. Does he have a sense of why his 5-year-old was having trouble in preschool, and what might be prompting the other behaviors? Is he on board with the parenting choices in his family or is he, too, hesitant to bring things up with his wife because of her sensitivity? Is he aware that even though his son is back at preschool, the boy might still be struggling?

Without bringing up the nursing, you can approach your son from a place of care versus concern about what you’ve observed, which might make him more inclined to open up a dialogue. Instead of I’m worried that all this coddling is causing little Mikey to act out and maybe it’s time to wean him, you might say: Hey, I’ve noticed that Mikey seems to get really frustrated when we say no to him. It’s probably just a phase, but do you think it would be worth asking your pediatrician about it to see if she has any tips? I’d love to know what’s most helpful when I’m taking care of him. Or: I took Mikey out for ice cream and he seemed to want to rub up against another woman there. I don’t know if you’ve seen that, but I was wondering what you think I should do in those situations to help him understand that other people might not want that.

Of course, your son may not want to talk about any of this with you, or he may feel that your grandson’s behavior isn’t a problem. In that case, you’ll have to keep your thoughts to yourself, because along with the parental right to raise their child as they wish, your son and daughter-in-law also have the right to exclude you from their lives. And not only would that be heartbreaking, but it’d probably leave your grandson worse off: A key way you can help him is to be a loving, consistent presence in his life.

Here’s how: One of the most painful childhood experiences people talk about in therapy is the perception of having tried but failed to be seen or heard by the adults who cared for them. If your grandson is trying to communicate through his behavior and his parents aren’t receiving the message, you can help him simply by narrating his experience. Maybe: I noticed that you wanted to get close to that lady at the ice cream place. Were you feeling lonely? Or: I see that you’re really frustrated because it’s time to put the game away now. Or: I heard that you’re having more fun at school lately. Tell me about your friends there. Do more listening than talking. (During my internship, our clinical supervisor said, “You have two ears and one mouth—there’s a reason for that ratio.”)

Many kids feel comfortable talking to a grandparent in a way they don’t with their own parents. You may discover that your grandson doesn’t need help after all, but if he does, you’re providing it. You won’t be able to do anything concrete with the information he shares—meaning, you won’t change how he interacts with his family—but you’ll be giving him the experience of being seen and heard, and that’s no small thing. Often, it’s a lifesaver.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.