Writer and broadcaster

My son-in-law is transferring his anxieties onto our grandson. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

My daughter and her partner split up six months ago after seven years together. They both came from troubled childhoods. My daughter was abducted abroad by her father at the age of nine and decided when she was 16 not to have anything more to do with him. When her partner was a teenager, his mother left the country to start afresh with someone new. 

My main concern is for my grandson, now five. He is generally a sunny child, doing well at school and appears to be coping well. His parents are living a short distance apart and he spends equal amounts of time with each. 

My partner of 18 years and I help out with childcare when we can. Recently, I arranged to collect my grandson from his father; he is usually very excited and happy to see me, but this time when saying goodbye he became tearful and unhappy, which appeared to be triggered by his father asking him if he was all right and cuddling him. He was extremely tired-looking and told me later he had been up late the previous evening with Daddy. 

We had a lovely day together and he seemed happy but as I put him to bed I heard him crying, “Daddy, I love you and I’ll see you on Saturday.” After a few minutes he fell asleep but I felt out of my depth and didn’t know how to comfort him. I found it distressing. 

My daughter said there have been one or two similar instances, and she has had problems with “stroppy” behaviour when he returns from his father’s. She has asked if he has any problems but doesn’t get much back. 

Her partner was hugely upset by the break-up. He appears to be seeking constant reassurance by always asking for cuddles and hugs from his son, and I can understand this in terms of his own experience of parenting, but the worry is that he will transfer his anxieties on to my grandson. He also appears to be undermining the rules that were applied to raising their son when they were a couple. My daughter feels that if she raises the subject with him, it will be taken as criticism and destabilise the reasonably amicable arrangements of access etc. 

I feel an exaggerated responsibility for the problems in my daughter’s life, and it is almost unbearable to see this situation playing out again. 

The situation isn’t playing out again. These are different people and different times – it will be a different outcome. I don’t want to minimise your feelings but the young child of separated parents being clingy and one parent flouting the rules is not unusual and none of it is, in itself, anything to overly worry about. I’m sure your daughter bends the rules occasionally.

You deserve to be applauded. Despite everything, here you all are, with what seem like perfectly ordinary lives, having had relationships that didn’t work out but which lasted some years. There is a lot of success there – a lot to build on.

Gill Jones, a counsellor (bacp.co.uk), thought so too, but saw “a lack of confidence in your ability to be a good grandparent”. Jones said you’d obviously taught your daughter that relationships can work because although hers is now broken, it had lasted seven years; and that there seems to be a very good relationship between you and your daughter.

She adds: “What you can do is give your grandson undivided attention. You could give him the space to talk if he needs to, but try to stay neutral.”

I wonder why you found your grandson being upset so distressing and why you felt you couldn’t comfort him. Perhaps it tapped into something deep inside you relating to your daughter and her distress when you weren’t there to soothe it. One of the best ways to soothe is to empathise; you don’t have to say much. Jones wondered if there was a “retriggering of emotions” to do with the abduction? Have you ever had counselling about that?

It’s interesting you mention that you’re worried that your ex son-in-law will “transfer his anxieties” to your grandson, because I think a part of you is doing this too.

It’s not surprising, given what all of you have been through but in focusing so much on your grandson you are ignoring the massive trauma your family has been through. Being abducted by her father and taken out of the country (for how long?) is no small deal for your daughter, or for you. Nor is your son-in-law’s mother leaving him. Sometimes, when adults would rather not address their own issues, they can talk about them through their children. I think you need to be careful – all of the grownups here – to attend to your own psychological needs and make them separate from the little boy’s.

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 21 November 2014.