Virginia Ironside: Dilemmas

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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

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 (plain speaking can so often be cruel) and would prefer to present my home truths on a pretty plate with mayonnaise and watercress surrounding them to soften the blow, 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 yet actually given this family any basic rules of behaviour and told them to stick to them, 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 attempting 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. You don't start talking to a murderer about his problems while he has an axe in his hands. You talk about it after he's put it down.

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.







Be a good listener

The answer, I think, comes in one word, but that does not mean it is an easily achieved answer. Listen. Your friend will benefit enormously from just being listened to, although there is no "just" about it. Listening, and who among us wouldn't like to be thought of as a good listener, is an incredibly difficult skill to master. Really listening to a friend, trying to hear the fears behind the sometimes more obvious fears is difficult. Trying to sit and absorb information without judging, without waiting for the pause where you can leap in and apparently "solve" the problem – is tough. Because this family seeks the help of therapists, and good for them I say, because they are dealing with, we hope, trained professionals, I don't think the more potentially dangerous elements of this violence fall to you to solve.

Trust that professionals will help with that side of things, so be the best friend you possibly can be and listen. Sit with your friend in silence (don't proffer solutions because that is probably your own ego wanting to be a solver) and listen until your friend has run out of words, while picturing yourself with your arms open wide, as if you were giving them the biggest hug you possibly could, and absorbing all their fears and sadness. Sometimes what we need is friends to bear witness to our ills and sometimes, that and a loving hug, help us on our way to finding our own solutions.

N. Roderick-Jones

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.

Christina Burton

Eastbourne, East Sussex







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.

First and foremost, 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. You can help her with this by understanding how extremely difficult it will be for her, and being strong for her when her resolve is weak. Try not to criticise, only to guide and support – your friend needs you on her side.

Name and address supplied



Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

Five years ago my husband and I were at the point of no return. He was drinking heavily, had built up debts and behaved really badly to me. With lots of love and support from me he gave up drinking and is now a changed man – loving and affectionate, and we were extremely happy and close – until I discovered that during those dreadful years, he'd slept with three women. He has cried and apologised, but I can't forgive him and yet I know that if I could, ours would be a great marriage. What can I do?

Yours sincerely, Beth

Email your dilemmas and comments to dilemmas@independent.co.uk, or go to www.independent.co.uk/dilemmas. Anyone whose advice is quoted will receive a £25 voucher from the wine website Naked Wines ( www.nakedwines.com).

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