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Explaining to kids why the family is estranged from Grandpa

Carolyn Hax

Hi, Carolyn:

My father is a narcissist living in a different country. I made peace with who he is a long time ago and don’t have a relationship with him. I don’t feel any connection to him at all.

My two children, 6 and 10, have never met him and have only spoken with him over the phone a couple of times. I don’t want them to have a relationship with him considering all the abuse, poor judgment and bad behavior he exhibited while married to my mother.

How do I explain this to them now, and as they grow? What is appropriate, healthy and honest? It’s unlikely they will really have any contact with him since he’s in his 80s, but I also want to be able to talk with them about it and about him. How do I do that?

— A Caring Mom

With an eye, always, to how you want them to treat you and others when they’re old enough themselves to sever a tie to someone.

Typically it’s wise not to weigh kids down with too many details and nuances about adult relationships, especially ones they’re too young to grasp, and it’s also an act of decency not to speak ill of others. These are healthy impulses that you need to resist a bit here: Your kids need more of the truth than you’d be otherwise inclined to tell. It’s important not to suggest that family estrangement is a reasonable response to routine faults and frustrations.

It sounds as if you made a necessary decision to distance yourself from your father; I’m not questioning that.

But anything less than a full explanation of your father’s absence can leave room for your kids to interpret that you, say, just don’t agree with him or think he’s boring or took offense to one of his jokes.

So tell them, simply: You don’t see your father because he was unkind to people — not just once, but most of the time, without any apology or effort to be kinder, despite your plainly asking for both.

That’s it. Your kids are both young enough to see that as enough information, and old enough to ask follow-up questions if they want to know more. Use those questions, if they come, as your kids’ way of showing you they are ready for a more nuanced explanation.

That doesn’t mean you have to answer them; it’s OK to say, “That’s a good question, but I need to think about it/I’m not sure I’m ready to answer.” Just encourage their curiosity regardless. That’s not only how they learn, but also how they tell you how well they understand.

Dear Carolyn:

I have a chronic illness that causes severe fatigue. There are a number of these “invisible” diseases, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, COPD, to name a few. I wear makeup, exercise, dress neatly, and try to make myself as presentable as possible. But daily I hear, “You look so tired.” How to respond, beyond the evil eye?

— Tired

People do like to show they care. I’m just sorry so many of them are idiots about it.

Assuming you’re burned out on educating people: I’m partial to a bright, incongruous, “Thanks!” [smile.] Same message as your evil eye, but costing a smaller chunk of my soul.

Email Carolyn at [email protected], follow her on Facebook at or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at

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