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DCs being labelled 'wonderful', vs. 'trouble'

(121 Posts)
PassTheSherry Fri 08-Nov-13 13:51:16

It's been ongoing since they were babies, she doesn't mean any harm, but dd1 and dd2 are 6 and 4yrs now - I'm concerned that it might affect their relationship over time? They get on really well with each other at the moment, and I would like them to stay friends.

Dcs stay over at their grandparents' (my ILs) without us, for a weekend, once in 4-5 weeks - this has been an arrangement that we've been extremely grateful for, as we have no family nearby. They have lots of fun, get to see other members of the family, and ILs enjoy having them (we leave it up to them how often they wish to see them - there is no obligation although it's nice for us to have a break).

However, every time we go to fetch them and spend a bit of time there, at some point MIL will tell me she thinks dd1 "is a wonderful, wonderful child" - which is lovely of course, but this is offset by a tale of how dd2 is disruptive, inconsiderate, trouble and how she "could have throttled her!" It's become so predicable I could count the minutes before I hear those exact words, as they invariably get uttered every single time.

An example of why this happens, is MIL enjoys Art, so she will get her paints out and sits them down at the table, to do drawing and painting etc. DD1 loves this, excels in this at school - she could happily sit and draw for and hr or so. DD2 likes to draw, but not to the extent that DD1 would - and for her, it's just one activiity - not something she loves especially or shows particular interest in. So dd2 (from what MIL tells me) - will lose concentration and get off her seat after a short while, and want to do something else. MIL says she then disrupts dd1, as she wants her to play too. MIL gets exasperated and thinks dd2 is being inconsiderate etc. (perhaps, but she is still only a 4yo and can't be expected to sit as long as a 6yo would, doing something she loves anyway). This happens every time.

I've tried telling MIL that they just have different personalities and interests, and that's OK, but she doesn't listen. Even the artwork they come up with is judged in some way - dd1's being lauded as "wonderful", compared with how dd2 used to mix all the paints together until it was a grey/black sludge, and paint everything in that colour (this was when she was 2/3yrs). Cue "I could've throttled her!" again...

It's not just the art, generally dd1 is a bit of a favoured grandchild, pfb of their pfb. I was an only, so don't really know much about sibling dynamics, but have read Siblings Without Rivalry! I'm a bit concerned as DP and his brother aren't particularly close as adults, and I wonder if it's partly been damaged by childhood family dynamics like that. MIL also refers to him as having been a "wonderful child", and his brother as "trouble". They are friendly and civil, but not close.

(Sorry for length)

mummytime Mon 11-Nov-13 16:21:21

I'm really bad at the clever thing BTW! And it was from work based on Carol Dwerk's initial work.

PicardyThird Mon 11-Nov-13 18:03:54

PassTheSherry - you are very perceptive and I think your instincts are bang on.

I do think you need to tackle it, calmly. I'm sorry your dp is not as completely on board as he should be.

PassTheSherry Mon 11-Nov-13 18:04:07

I think it's bloody hard work trying to do the right thing all the time!

Like we affectionately call them "beautiful" sometimes (well, to us they are lol). But then, sort of back-track clumsily because we don't want them to get the message that being 'pretty' is the be all and end all. So it's all a bit clumsy cos of our own ingrained habits, but we at least try.

Thing is, I know we're not perfect parents either, and regularly trip-up. In some ways because I have this lack of 'normality' reference due to my own background - no siblings, no cousins, own Mum passed away long before dc's arrived - I've tried to fill in the gaps by reading a fair amount.

This means that MIL and FIL's 'old school' approach can sometimes be even more at odds with what I'm trying to do. I do think I should give them some slack, because they won't have read various parenting articles, etc.

PassTheSherry Mon 11-Nov-13 18:16:07

PicardyThird Thank you - that's very nice to hear. I'm kind of looking for hand-holding, and to have a sounding board really as I didn't really have a normal childhood myself. I veer between thinking "No. It really isn't in my head." to "Maybe it's me just spoiling things for everyone. After all, everyone else seems quite happy with the arrangments (even dd2)."

I am virtually discounting DP as any strong support in this as he won't say boo to his Mum. But then, he can do no wrong in her eyes either so it's a powerful tag team. I am dreading rocking the boat tbh.

dozeydoris Mon 11-Nov-13 18:29:57

You are doing a great job OP. We are all stuck with the childhoods we had, plus the characteristics we inherit, so no one will be the perfect parent. But being aware and keeping an eye on things is half the battle and you are doing a great job at that.
Providing a safe place where DCs can voice any opinions, such as using the wizard story, should mean that DGPs 'quirky' behavior can be discussed and explained. Then perhaps as they grow up they will just dismiss things as 'Granny being silly again' rather than having secret worries about who is or isn't best.
This will be a long term project for you so don't wear yourself out worrying about it, with support the DCs will be fine. Best of luck.

PassTheSherry Mon 11-Nov-13 18:44:07

Going back through this thread makes me feel sad. Am grateful to all the posters who shared their experiences, and live with the repercussions of 'favouritism'. Thank you and Wow. It 'seems' like it's not that big a deal, 'shit happens', but it's so destructive! Wastes such a lot of years, never mind the loss of feeling connected to your sibling.

I look at our two, from the added perspective of an only child, and it's absolutely delightful how they play (and argue, and bicker) - but mostly laugh together. To me that is really precious. Found a note once that dd1 had written by herself, saying "I love dd2 because she is my sister." And dd2 often says dd1 is her "most favourite thing in the world". It's just very sweet right now, and I would do what I have to do to protect that friendship.

Wandastartup Mon 11-Nov-13 19:34:47

I could have written your post almost word for word( 2 daughters, same ages) apart from less frequent in-law visits! It makes me so sad that our children are labelled like this( in our case really from birth). Lots of usefuadvice here which I too will take on board!

PassTheSherry Mon 11-Nov-13 19:50:16

Also Atilla - throughout this thread you have been a strong voice advocating stopping dc's from going. I am not ignoring what you say and have given it some thought - just, not ready for that.

I feel we should try other steps first, as the family connection IS important to me, and I don't want to take that away from them lightly. Hoping you're wrong, but thinking maybe you could be right, so thank you for the warning, and I'll bear it in mind.

Will update what happens...

lifehasafunnywayofhelpinguout Tue 12-Nov-13 00:21:47

Ooh. It's not going to be easy but you need to talk to their grandparents and tell them that it upsets you that she differciates between your your dd's. As you say they get on well now but believe me if this continues resentment and jealousy will eventually rare it's head.

PassTheSherry Tue 12-Nov-13 10:25:10

Thank you life - I think I have been well and truly convinced that I do need to address it! It just feels like the beginning of a possibly long and painful road. I don't intend to let dds go without me until when/if I feel that the dynamics are much healthier. Not expecting miracles but at least with me there, I can see for myself what goes on.

This means DP and I won't get any time as a couple anymore, which am also rather gutted about as we're not in great shape either. But dc's need to to come first.

Anyway, I'm even more curious what goes on now, what on earth do you make of this?

This morning, while I was getting them ready for school, dd1 said to me completely out of the blue (hadn't mentioned anything to do with MIL):
Dd1: "You know when we were at Grandma's the other day? She put us in "[BIL's dd]"s knickers and vests and they were too big for us."
Pass: "But you've got your own underwear in your cases."
Dd1: "Yes I know, but she put us in the other knickers anyway."
Pass: "Why did she do that?"
Dd1: "I don't know. She just did"
Dd2: "We were walking around and they were too big!" [laughs]
Pass: "Well you need to tell her you have your own knickers, just get them out and show her."
Dd1: "She already knew!"
Dd2: "She did it anyway!"
Pass: "Hmm...Do you like wearing too big knickers or something?"
Dd1: "Yeah! It was funny" [laughs]

Not saying it was anything sinister, but it sounds senselessly bonkers. BIL's dd is 12 so the size difference wouldn't have been insignificant! Why would you do that?? They each had their own supply of clothes and undies with them, neither of them are prone to 'accidents' so it's not like they ran out or anything. Just very odd. Should I mention it?

dozeydoris Tue 12-Nov-13 15:46:23

Did DGM think she was passing on some outgrown clothes of other DGD?

But there was still no reason to dress them in them - a 4yr old in a 12 yr old's knickers? - def v weird.

PassTheSherry Tue 12-Nov-13 17:55:01

Not passing on of clothes as they didn't arrive home with them.

Mentioned it to DP though, and he has a plausible explanation - it was night of fireworks display, so she dressed them in a double layer of underwear, their own, then bigger size on top. 'Old school' concern about keeping nether regions warm!!!

PassTheSherry Tue 19-Nov-13 10:37:58

FIL phoned to say they can't have dds over next time as planned - work commitments have come up. They suggested a weekend in early Dec but dd1 can't make it due to other stuff going on then - so settled on a date in mid Dec (again no mention of dd2 being still welcome - although, as I'm not sure if I'd want dd1 and dd2 to visit separately at the moment anyway, I didn't suggest it either).

I asked if it would be OK if I went along and stayed too, "as it's been a while since we've done that", and FIL was delighted, said that's even better.

So we are all going up as a family for one overnight, and all coming home the next day. Dgps get to see dds, I can keep an eye on things, and have dd2's back if MIL says/does anything to make dd2 out to be the scapegoat, and generally bring some levity to the over-praising of dd1 as well. DP and I can still hopefully get a bit of time on our own, for a couple of hrs in the evening when children are in bed.

I'm anticipating that at some point over the stay, I will probably have to say something, but it feels easier to have it broken down in smaller steps i.e. not have to make a point of staying over, and ILs taking offence at that already. At least this way it seems more 'natural'.

boschy Tue 19-Nov-13 13:44:02

god OP this all sounds so wearing. I've read the thread, and am delighted to see you are going with them on the next trip.

My MIL has a v. dysfunctional relationship with her own sister, to the point that they dont speak at all and can only be barely polite at public events (weddings, funerals, etc).

My older DD was a difficult small child, while DD2 was a delight. MIL took great pleasure in telling them both for a while that sisters always hate each other... which I continually told them wasnt true, of course.

About 7 years ago we really dramatically cut down contact with the PIL, just through making excuses about busy lives etc. PIL now totally favour our DDs cousins, SIL's children (which we knew was on the way anyway). DH would not have seen this as a deliberate thing btw, because as the non-wonderful child himself, it was and still is too difficult for him to address.

To get to the point, my DDs (now 17 and 14) have really seen through their GPs for the last 5 years or so, have learned to live with it, and tbh they really dont care that the cousins are the favourites, they just shrug. it helps that my DM adores them - but the point is, we went to considerable lengths to absolutely reinforce their sibling bond, rather than the bond with GPs (because GPs were damaging them). dont know if that's any help, from the perspective of older parents?

HotDAMNlifeisgood Tue 19-Nov-13 14:27:29

I think you should have a read of "Toxic In-Laws" by Susan Forward.

I love the bedtime story you invented for them. Your little girls are as smart and perceptive as you are.

Like many on this thread, I come from generations of dysfunctional family dynamics. I was "trouble" and my sister was "the good one". We both have low self-esteem and unmet potential, and as an adult I spent far too long in a violent and abusive marriage. The messages your MIL is giving DDs will cause deep and long-lasting damage, as you have realised.

However, while you DO need to speak to your MIL, you will not and cannot get her to see your side of things. The only goal you can have when you speak to her is in setting boundaries which she will undoubtedly test and rail against. Sadly it doesn't sound like your husband is willing to back you up. So all the things you say will have to be short and uber-clear. The best and most effective thing is to catch her in the act, and:

- describe what she is doing, factually, in a way that she can't contest ("MIL, you just said you 'could have throttled' DD2")
- say how it makes you feel ("It makes me angry to hear you speak about my child like that.")
- request alternative behaviour, without saying "please" ("Don't demean DD2, or compare the two girls.")

She won't take it well, and her responses may include blaming you (for being "oversensitive"), or making it all about her (tears, tantrum, appealing to FIL and your DH...). Just hold the line, repeat your request as necessary, remember that you have every right to feel upset about her behaviour towards the DDs, even if they all try to convince you that you "shouldn't" be, and just remove yourself and DDs from her presence if she can't accept your simple request. You will probably have to repeat this scenario several times before they realise that they have to respect your boundaries if they want to see you and the DDs.

Good luck.

DoYouEverFeelLikeAPlasticBag Tue 19-Nov-13 17:14:25

Another one here who suffers from favouritism and is seeing history repeating itself with my parents.

I was always "the moody one", my older sister "the sensible one", these stereotypes were repeated constantly, and still are, which has caused great damage to our relationship.

Now my DNs who are 6 and 4, same ages as your DCs OP, are being set into clear pre-determined roles by my parents, particularly by my DF. The eldest DN, who is intelligent, quiet, thoughtful etc is "Such a delightful child", while the younger DN who is feisty, cheeky, funny, entertaining is called "A little Bugger" and laughed at whenever he's naughty. THey say things like DGC1 was such a good boy, but this little bugger (DGC2) is the naughty one.

He's a lovely child, but I worry that my parents stereotyping will become a self fulfilling prophecy for him, and he'll think "well if you think I'm a little bugger, I will be one".... there's no talking any sense into my DPs though.

Spiritedwolf Tue 19-Nov-13 23:40:19

I think you are right to be there for your girls and to state your boundaries plainly.

I can't remember if my EA F was ever so obvious as to actually label us, but I was always aware of being the 'good, nice, well behaved one' when my sister was going through her moody teenage years.

What this meant in practice, is that I was the compliant one who tried to appease him and blamed myself when he was angry (over very small stuff), especially in my teenage years. I never felt like I could be angry or defiant back, I just stood there and took it.

It really messed me up. I was terrified of making mistakes, getting things wrong etc. Now obviously it wasn't all down to the labelling, a lot of it was his shouting and EA. But the thing was, I was totally limited by that label, I felt I had to be nice and good all the time, I couldn't rock the boat, I was frightened of telling people about what he was really like because that wouldn't be 'nice' to him. His love felt conditional on me being on my best behaviour. Which of course I couldn't be as he picked on smaller and smaller things wrong.

When I left home, I ended up dropping out of university due to anxiety that developed into agoraphobia. (I felt even more crap about this becuse I was also the 'clever one').

I still have problems with the "good" label, I can't enjoy a drink, feel I have to be absolutely above reproach (sounds good but means I'm hesitant about giving my opinion, feel I have to justify it and end up writing really long posts like this wink and I sometimes have trouble speaking in public).

It doesn't mean I don't ever tell my toddler DS he is "a good boy" but I do try to minimise it, saying "thank you/ta" if he has been helpful, or I am descriptive of what he's doing.

I know I'm not going to be perfect, but at least I'm aware that labels aren't harmless. Its good that your DDs aren't exposed to this attitude all the time and that you are going to protect them by being there. I haven't left DS alone with my F, if I had been unsure about that decision, I was made certain by the comments he has made around DS. One day he expressed that he'd like to tell him off (I can't remember the exact phrasing, but it was more like giving him a bollocking, but maybe he didn't swear), baby DS hadn't done anything wrong at all, not even something worthy of a firm 'No'. I told him he would not give DS a telling off (but used whatever phrase it was he had). He said "that sounds like a challenge" and I said "No its not, I meant it". Since then he's been pretty distant and not said anything similar. I had frozen up when he'd said similar things in the past. I'm glad I stood up to him.

I had mentally rehearsed for weeks how to call my F on his sarky, mean, bullying BS. But that was the first time he hadn't caught me off guard. I am prepared to walk out if he ever shouts at DS or belittles him. I had to live with it growing up, I'm sure as hell he won't have to.

Please be aware that your DH and you being unwilling to rock the boat, upset her, cause a row extra is exactly the kind of politeness bullies rely upon. Do read up on toxic parents/inlaws. And she doesn't need to shout to be a bully. DD2 is put in a situation with her where she can't do anythign right when she's just being 4 years old, and DD1 was right when she said that the wizard wanted her to like him rather than her sister. Her GMs love and attention appears to be conditional on her being quiet, artistic etc because her sister who isn't those things doesn't get it.

I think the siblings without rivalry book is probably a good one, I haven't read it, but I have read How to talk so Kids will listen which I think is along the same lines in terms of techniques - its all about respecting children. grin

Spiritedwolf Tue 19-Nov-13 23:43:35

My Dsis and I aren't close, but we are being kinder to one another since we both had children.

Spiritedwolf Tue 19-Nov-13 23:44:33

Oh, and she was there when I stood up to my dad, she didn't say anything, but I hope she noticed and felt that she could also put limits on how he deals with DNs

PassTheSherry Wed 20-Nov-13 11:50:42

boschy Thanks for your story and it's encouraging that your dc's seem able to shrug it off now, years later! So they would have been 10 and 7 when you dramatically cut down on contact. It's appalling they were constantly told that sisters hate each other. Luckily I don't think PILs are that bad. MIL does tell them to be kind to one another.

Are the cousins both girls too? If so they might be subjected to the same thing now. What a horribly negative message.

HotDAMN Thanks for the book recommendation - I will check it out! I like what you say about catching MIL doing something and then describing factually what has happened, stating how it affects me, and requesting alternative behaviour. That sounds assertive, and to the point. Exactly what I need to do, to stay calm. My nightmare is that I will get an uncontrollable urge to apologise for rocking the Happy/Lovely Boat saying something, before I even open my mouth. Or go the other way and jump down her throat as soon as she twitches! Those three things are quite easy to remember though.

Yes I'm not expecting great shakes to come from it. Probably more like a stunned silence and a bit of defensiveness from MIL. Then maybe someone changes the subject. Early Family xmas dinner in a stilted atmosphere along with the occasional favouritism slip up, which will be immediately followed by a look in my direction ('Oops did she catch that') and furtive glances at each other, in the 'must tread carefully around super-sensitive, uptight DIL' manner. I'll probably sit there seething at being regarded like a strange and alien species, and feeling uncomfortable that no one is backing me up. Dc's bewildered at what is going on.

That's probably a likely scenario, I can almost see it unfolding before my very eyes!!! Turkey, tinsel, and a (suppressed) Family Falling-Out, amongst the christmas crackers.

If it really is that horrible, at least we can leave the next day and I will have drawn a line, which they can then mull over (and possibly completely ignore - but will cross that bridge later). Then I will probably feel really guilty!

DoYouEverFeel Your dc's situation does sound familiar! Yes to the self-fulfilling prophecy concern. Glimmerberry's post upthread (Sat 09-Nov-13 22:01:21) rang alarm bells for me as I could see so clearly how she arrived at certain decisions. Of course if you're told you're trouble - or a little bugger, you internalise it and behave accordingly. If you feel like you fail at being 'good', you might as well succeed in being 'bad'. Then if you feel you're never good enough, or just trouble, you go with whatever you think you deserve, or can identify with. Other people who are labelled trouble of course. It's not a recipe for a happy life and just the thought makes me want to hug dd2 so tightly and tell her all the ways in which she shines.

See, I can be much more objective seeing your situation because it's not my own - and I would be saying exactly the same as all the others here. Challenge them on it, tell them it's not acceptable, or lessen contact. Simples! (If only...)

It's so sad. It's quite an eye-opener when so many people, siblings who have grown up with favouritism and labelling, actually say "it caused great damage to our relationship". So many people have said that in this thread. Yet it's so common.

Spiritedwolf Thanks for your story. It's another stark reminder that the damage goes to the 'good' one too. I do get concerned that dd1 runs the risk of perfectionism and being risk averse. Thanks in part to the many anecdotes in this thread I know to keep an eye on it. It was parents' evening recently and I casually mentioned that we were a bit concerned sometimes, that dd1 might be too much of a perfectionist - told the teacher the recent incident of how she had been in floods of tears for 10mins, over what had been a mild telling off. The teacher said she does take risks at school, seems confident and happy - no concerns but will keep an eye out.

I know many people consider it too late to reconcile with siblings in adulthood (I often wonder what would happen, if ILs were not around as the central gathering point for family occasions, would DP and BIL be in touch at all?). Such a pity though, that childhood bonds - kids are so open and naturally accepting too - get worn thin by the messed up behaviour of adults around them.

Sometimes I think maybe having children helps. I do notice that DP's self-confidence has grown a bit since we first got together, and more since having kids - maybe it's having that central point move from the family home, to their own life outside. Also having kids makes you view your own upbringing more analytically, and maybe with a more critical eye, as you go through your own does with me, anyway.

boschy Wed 20-Nov-13 14:21:06

sherry you are going to be just fine, because you know exactly what is going on, and are taking steps to address it. your girls will know that you are on their side (for both of them), and that is what matters the most.

the cousins are girl/boy, roughly each a year younger than our 2. their mother (DH's younger sister) was the golden child, while he was the naughty one (err, I think he was a small boy actually). his relationship with his parents is superficially polite but very shallow, and with his sister I would say pretty minimal - they never call each other, we see her and her kids maybe 2-3 times a year.

PIL, when we see them (maybe 4-6 times a year) constantly reinforce the brilliance, achievements, blah di blah of the cousins while asking nothing about our girls, or me. things are quite strained... DDs never actively want to see PIL, or when told they are coming will groan. Then we make a list of things to talk about so we dont have to hear about the wonderfulness of the cousins!!

so I would say continue to concentrate on your own family unit, and keep PIL at arms length - doesnt mean having to cut contact all together, but being in there and keeping an eye means you can nip incidences in the bud, or if you cant, you can at least explain them in age-appropriate ways afterwards.

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