Susan Hoffman Q&A: "My Mother-in-Law Isn't Stable. Should She Have Visitation Rights?"

Grandparents' rights expert Susan Hoffman answers your pressing questions about family relationships.

By Susan Hoffman
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Courtesy of Susan Hoffman
Susan Hoffman

Reader Question: I was reading about legal rights for grandparents to have more access to their grandchildren. What happens if that grandparent is not stable and isn't fit to look after the child?

Grandparent legal access is never a slam dunk. The petition filing process can be long and complicated with the burden of proof, pertaining to the best interest of the child, resting on the grandparent's shoulders. Should issues about grandparent fitness and stability be raised, it's not uncommon for a judge to order psychological evaluations for individuals involved in case. Judges also often appoint minor's counsel, which is an attorney assigned to represent the child.

On the other hand, whether or not legal action is on the horizon, parents should adopt a plan to ensure child safety, and try to diffuse any situation before it escalates. Parental authority is the guiding factor when it comes to acting on behalf of the child's best interest, and they are not obligated to leave their children in the care of grandparents. 

There are other ways to maintain the relationship, however. Parents who understand the benefits that children receive from the love and affection that the grandparent-grandchild relationship provides may want to try monitored visitation. Even though this may not fulfill the grandparent's expectations of having the child all to themselves, they continue to have access. Open communication is always the best policy and can be achieved without shaming and blaming.

The focus, once again, should be on the child.

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Susan Hoffman is the creator and director of Advocates for Grandparent-Grandchild Connection, a charitable non-profit  501©(3) organization, the purpose of which is to provide resources to families, specifically grandparents, experiencing visitation issues with grandchildren. She is also the author of Grand Wishes: Advocating To Preserve The Grandparent-Grandchild Bond and A Precious Bond: How To Preserve The Grandparent-Grandchild Relationship, as well as the documentary filmmaker behind A Precious Bond. She sponsored a bill in California on behalf of grandparent rights that became law in 2007, and currently lives in Newport Beach, California. Susan is not a lawyer. Her advice is for informational purposes only.


Being a victim of the word "unstable" per my darling daughter's comment to others truly hurts and it hurts badly. The word "unstable" is only a cruel and intentional way to tell someone they are hated. I seem to have fallen victim to her friends as well. One left voicemail claiming "your mother's nothing but a f ( elplicit) ing nut adding that "if she takes you to court you can have her psychologically tested. And the father , on his own sons 1st birthday at my home, gathered all my grandsons gifts ( my grandson and daughterlived with me ) and when asked why he was removing gifts, cursed protesting " shut your f ing mouth ! My family does everything for your daughter ! Well.. my heart sure sunk and I wished I had the money his family had as they could not hurry enough to provide her with a cell. phone and a car and encourage her to work in a strip club and to move from my home putting money up for her , to move somewhere, not knowing how she would pay her rent frowning down upon her child ever filing for support and GASP! Put that kind of pressure on the child's father should he be so inclined to actually get a job . Yet I am not stable for being a loving mother, grandmother and caretaker. As of recent the family helped their unemployed son pay a lawyer to keep this Nonna away from our grandson. Words are just that. Any parent who will walk out of their parents life ignoring the sacrifices made truly needs a DSM evaluation.

GrandNonna on 2013-10-18 19:47:21

I could be wrong, but I don't see anywhere in this conversation where the grandmother in question was evaluated, assessed and diagnosed to be "not stable." Living in a culture where anyone who can look up symptoms on the internet and decide, with neither the education, experience, nor expertise of a qualified psychiatrist, who is "not stable," has become the norm-- everyone, at one time or another, exemplifies symptoms of SOME mental illness or instability. Unqualified people diagnosing family members as not stable is creating an epidemic in our country. They use catch psych words and phrases to judge the grandmother. Maybe she is unstable, mentally, physically, or both. And maybe her psychiatrist who evaluated, assessed, diagnosed and began treatment on her has come to a similar conclusion, in which case, s/he would be the person with whom to talk about what to do with unstable Gramma and the best way to include her in her grand-kids lives. Kicking her out of the family isn't acceptable treatment for mental illness.

It also seems to me calling an elder "unstable" is a catch phrase in our culture that thrives on everything being disposable after it's reached its shelf-life, that means the person saying so doesn't like the person they're saying it about, and that maybe feeling that way leaves them feeling less than stable when they have to figure out how to problem-solve and get along with family. There was a time in white culture where grandparents were revered, were necessary, were respected and honored, and in some cultures in our country, it's the grandparents raising their grandchildren. We could learn much from many Asian and I believe all Native American tribes on the value of "unstable" people who have outlived their shelf-lives. The Tribal Elders call all the shots-- and I've no doubt at least one of the warrior braves thinks the elders seem odd in how they stare at the night sky instead of compulsively multitasking on their I-phones, pecking away on Facebook, while watching the late news and pacing lunches. Did you know they're thinking of adding Compulsive Multitasking into the DMV-- the Bible of mental health disorders. OOooops! Maybe Gramma will end up raising the kids if Mom and Dad are diagnosed with CMT (Compulsive Multitasking.)

After 40 years in the field, I can faithfully say that there isn't a family in existence that doesn't have at least one, sometimes more members deemed "not stable" by one or more other family members.
If people actually understood mental illness and mental health, saying someone is unstable and therefore ought to be kept from the children is like saying they have heart disease or arthritis and ought to be kept from the kids-- mental illness, TRUE mental illness, is just that, an illness, and not dangerous-- not every person with mental illness is a psychopathic, knife-wielding Hannibal Lecter. It isn't even a contagious illness. The kind of instability that I hear the parent generation saying about the grandparent generation, for the most part, across the board, is code for "I don't want this person around, but I can't find any examples of unacceptable behavior, so I'll discredit her/him and keep her/him away with something so vague, there's no room for redemption or healing. I don't understand this grandmother person; I don't know why she says the things she says or does the things she does-- she just seems weird to me, and I don't know how to explain her weirdness to my kids. Having to deal with her is a bother.' That sounds like a family who could use a good family counselor.

Keeping kids and their grandparents apart is a great way to show them that, if they behave in a manner the parent doesn't approve of, they too, can be banned, kicked out of the family, just like Mom and Dad did with my sweet, loving Gramma. Oh, yes, and today's children watching their parents throw away Granny because she's wacky are learning what they can do when they become the adult parents and their parents become the "not stable" grandparents.

Bottom line: NO ONE who is NOT a qualified psychiatrist should be impersonating a doctor-- it's a criminal act. And no one but a qualified psychiatrist can determine if Oma is "not stable." If Grandma really is not stable, then the first step would be to get help as a family. A lot of people start with their family minister/priest/rabbi/religious leader, most of whom have enough training to know whether Nana needs to be referred to a doctor in the field. With possible medication and proper therapy, PC training on mental illness for the name-calling family members, accompanied by the children, too, the unstable adult can learn to be loved, honored, and respected for her wisdom and experience. Recognition of said wisdom often seems to skip a generation-- the grand-kids can see in Grammie what the middle generation of parents can only see as annoyance and something that needs to be put in a home and left to rot. Again, watch what you're teaching your children-- actions speak FAR MORE than words. You can tell them you love Grandma, but you think keeping her away is best for everyone. They're going to see what's really going on.

Family is messy. Family is the one group of people on whom we all ought to be able to count, no matter what. If Gramma really is two fries short of a Happy Meal, then get her some professional help, and let that professional help figure out ways to integrate her-- illness and all-- into the family. Kids who are planning to grow up and live in reality are going to have to deal with the mentally ill, more often than not, it will be mentally ill who have yet to be evaluated, assessed, diagnosed, and treated. There's no better time and no better person to help them learn about mental illness in a healthy way than with their own grandmother and parents who love them. If the war call of "she's unstable" leads to throwing her out with the bath water, so-to-speak, then don't be surprised in 30 years when your sweet, young offspring do the same to you. What goes around, comes around. on 2013-03-22 03:07:42

Take the GP/GC relationship off of the table and look at it this way: Lets say you (generally speaking here) think your long time neighbor Sally is showing signs/behaving as if she could be emotionally/mentally unstable - would you want to submit yourself to that behavior? Would you want to submit your child to that behavior?

If you answered NO to either question then why would it be any different when the parent(s) decide Grandma Mary is emotionally/mentally unstable and think its in the best intrest of THEIR KIDS not to be around this behavior.

I dont see how todays family values are falling at the wayside? I do know that my generation of parents tolerate far less bad behavior/boundary crossing from family members than generations before us. I think we as parents do what we need to do to protect our kids and if that means not allowing them around someone who we feel is unstable be it family or not we're going to do it. I just cant imagine WILLINGLY subjecting my kids to someone who is mentally or emotionally unhealthy simply because they are related to them. That idea blows my mind.

Sunshine1002 on 2013-02-27 11:03:10

Grammykaren, I think you make an important point when you say we don't know "how the grandparent" in this case is unstable. But more info could push my opinion in either direction. If it's simply that the grandparent has poor judgment and can't be left alone with the child, that's one thing. As Hoffman says, parents 'are not obligated to leave their children in the care of grandparents," period. But if the grandparent is, say, given to unexpected and unwarranted tirades or crying jags, for example, I can see why the parents might not want them around their child, at all. Even a "qualified psychologist" may not be able to pick up, in a single evaluation, what that grandparent puts the family through, both children and adults.

I also get Sunshine's point that parents have been known to cut GPs off b//c of poor relations with them (the parents), etc. But some of those issues, in my opinion, are beyond what we're talking about here.

rosered135 on 2013-02-26 20:22:40

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