Dear Dr. Sylvia,
We listen to your radio program every week and have found this site as a way to ask a question that is pretty complicated. We have guardianship of our six-year-old granddaughter, Shelley, daughter of our adopted daughter who came to us at age three. Shelley's mom has many problems, among them attachment issues that have followed her all her life. Shelley, her firstborn, was eight weeks premature, and is a twin whose sister died at one month from complications of pre-maturity.
Shelley has been with us permanently since she was four-and-a-half. Before that, she spent weekends, which became longer and longer. She is now six. Lately she's been expressing feelings of abandonment: "My mommy loves Jennifer (her two-year-old half sister) better than me. Jenny lives with my mommy but I don't."
Mom is now pregnant with child number three by a third relationship. She is living with the father and says they will marry. I doubt it, but who can tell. We don't know what to tell Shelley about her mom. She will never go home to her. Her mother is not attached at all to Shelley and will agree that we should keep her forever, although she will never agree to full custody.
Would it be appropriate to tell Shelley that her mom has trouble loving and because no one loved her when she was a little girl, she can't love anyone; and the reason she sent Shelley to live with us is because she wants her to have a good life with people who love her? Shelley is a good kid. She's bright and seems okay in terms of her emotional health. We want very much to help her to understand that her life with us is a good thing, and that her mother's decision to have her stay here is not her fault. Any ideas would be welcome.
Your question is complex, and you must be wonderful people who can truly give your granddaughter a good home. Your suggestion that you reassure your granddaughter that she has not caused her mother's abandonment is very important. You can explain that her mother really never got to know her because her own problems were so serious. It would be best not to accuse her mother of not being able to love anyone. That is too difficult for a child to understand.
Furthermore you can never rule out her mother's coming back and wanting to parent her. Indeed, as of late, there have been too many grandparent-parents custody suits. Unlikely as it seems, people do change.
Because you have not adopted Shelley, you can only assure her that as grandparents, you will always try to be there, to be supportive and loving to her and that you will help her to grow to be the wonderful young woman she can be. It is better to concentrate on your good family life together and help her to realize that she is loved than to spend too much time discussing her mother's shortcomings. The more time spent on the problems, the more your granddaughter will eventually worry that she has inherited all of them.
During adolescence, when there will be times you will need to set limits, expect some difficult issues. You can only do your best and guide your granddaughter with your wisdom and love, but don't be surprised if she has to cope with some special challenges. She may require some counseling during that time to simply help her understand her special circumstances.