Carolyn Hax: Shield twins from granny’s favoritism

Hi Carolyn: I’m bringing my twin daughters, 2, to visit my parents, who live several states away. The G-parents are always thrilled to see the girls and spoil them accordingly.

My problem is that my mother seems to favor one of my daughters over the other. She’ll consistently focus her attention on Twin A, play with her more, hold her in the pool instead of B, sit next to her at dinner, speak much more to A, etc.

I don’t know how to bring this up with her. I want to make her aware of it before the twins are old enough to really feel the favoritism, but she is rather famous for taking huge offense at the slightest criticism. I have a feeling that anything I say will result in her first becoming incredibly defensive and quickly devolve into “Well, I must be the worst grandmother ever,” and end with a rousing, tearful description of everything she’s ever done for me and how ungrateful and critical I am. Can you please help? – Ohio

Not as much as either of us would like.

That’s because this isn’t just about a wonderful grandma who needs a little prompting toward fairness.

The way you describe your mother, she has deep insecurities, and lacks the maturity even to recognize them, much less plumb them, confront and repair. If I’m right about her, she needs to be the hero, to be needed, to be seen (i.e., to see herself) as lovable. Thus the spoiling and the dramatic defensiveness: She’s buying love, and throwing up barriers to criticism.

Think about it. You’ve clearly gathered good evidence of your mom’s preference, and the motivation to protect your children is a powerful one in favor of presenting this evidence to your mom. Yet you’re holding off.

By turning even mildly negative feedback into an interpretive dance of “huge offense” and tearful hyperbole, your mom stifles familial dissent. She will be indulged, or you will be punished. It’s a powerful weapon she wields.

Playing favorites is another such weapon. By preferring one grandchild, she becomes a towering figure to both children. Twin A will cleave to her for reasons you’d expect: Grandma means attention beyond what others receive. Toddlers are not oblivious to such advantages.

The unfavored B will also cleave to her, though – almost more passionately than Twin A does, thanks to the “Where’s mine?” impulse, the very basic human drive to achieve that which we’re being denied. Twin B sees this attention, sees she doesn’t get it, and wants it. Grandma uber alles.

You know your mother; you know whether this rings true. If so, then she might respond to any criticism by focusing more on Twin A, or, worse, shunning B. For that reason alone, consider running this by a reputable family therapist.

I suggest protecting your kids on many active fronts: Interrupt Grandma’s sustained attentions to A; say openly, “Time for B to see Grandma,” assuming Grandma is kind to B; recruit Grandpa or other loved ones to give extra attention to B (but be careful not to punish Twin A yourself for your mother’s indulgence); supervise Grandma closely with each child.

Limit the unhealthy exposure, too, by keeping visits short. As your children grow, adapt your interventions accordingly. Buffer, observe, tweak, repeat.

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