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Dilemmas: Elderly Abuse

Dear Virginia, A friend has confided that her daughter is behaving violently towards her.

Worse, a therapist has warned that the daughter could be violent towards her own child. This family is always seeing therapists, and being diagnosed with various mental conditions. They're a 'let it all hang out' family, always having rows, which they think are 'healthy'. But I'm worried for my friend. How can I help her?

Yours sincerely, David

Virginia says

You are in danger of becoming like one of those therapists this dysfunctional family have been consulting over the years. It seems that, by finding therapists who endorse the 'let it all hang out' behaviour, they're just using therapy as an excuse to continue their chaotic behaviour.

When I say you're in danger of becoming one of these, I mean that if you don't watch out, you'll add to the mix, offering advice that won't be taken, or will be taken and which will fail, or will be twisted in some way to justify them continuing in the same way.

I am not always a believer in plain speaking but in this case I think you should make your disapproval clear.

Tell your friend that you think she's brought up her daughter very badly -- as you say you believe in your longer letter -- that she's reaping what she sowed, that if she doesn't want to get hit she should put her foot down, threaten to call the police if it happens (and carry out the threat) and report the daughter anonymously to social services if there's any risk of her harming her granddaughter.

It seems that no one has given this family any basic rules of behaviour, rules that include good manners, courtesy, proper discussion about disagreements rather than rows, forgiveness and kindness. It sounds to me as if they're one of those families that thrives on highs and lows and at this rate the granddaughter will grow up just the same, imagining this is the norm.

If you wanted to, you could recommend family therapy, which would involve the whole lot of them, but I suspect they're addicted to their ways. And by confiding in you, your friend is trying to make you, too, part of the whirlwind that makes their lives exciting.

There's a moment when unacceptable behaviour has to be faced up to and shouted down. Once it's been made clear that it is just not on, only then can everyone start to examine why it started in the first place.

It's unlikely, but it is possible, that your strong stand might have a domino effect, and give your friend the strength to stand up to her daughter and, ultimately, break the repeating pattern of behaviour that is at risk of repeating itself, generation after generation.

I'm all for understanding, and believe in its healing powers, but there's a moment when a line has be drawn and it's only then that the understanding part can begin.

The readers say

Be a good listener

THE answer comes in one word: listen. Listening, however, is an incredibly difficult skill to master.

Because this family seeks the help of therapists, I don't think the more potentially dangerous elements of this violence fall to you to solve.

Trust that professional therapists will help with the threat of violence.

Sit with your friend in silence and listen until she has run out of words, while picturing yourself giving her the biggest hug you could, and absorbing her fears and sadness.

Sometimes a loving hug helps us on our way to finding our own solutions.

Saoirse, by email

Contact social services

The occasional family row isn't a problem, but violence is. Your friend should not accept any aggression from anyone, even if they are family.

However she chooses to tackle this is up to her, but the most pressing concern here is the risk to her grandchild. If your friend won't do anything, please don't hesitate to contact social services yourself.

Bridget, dublin 4

Be on her side

As someone whose childhood was blighted by violence, growing up with a mother who was alcoholic and probably mentally ill, I think you are right to be concerned.

Firstly, you need to be concerned about the child. If you sense this child is in danger and your friend isn't doing anything about it, then intervene yourself.

But assuming the professionals are looking after this, your concern is with your friend. She is a victim, too, and perhaps her love for her daughter is clouding her judgement and making her too tolerant of abuse.

Given that her daughter is getting help, it may be that your friend needs to cut off contact for a while, or make contact conditional on certain standards of behaviour.

Try not to criticise, only to guide and support -- your friend needs you on her side.

Frank, Co Dublin