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Dear Carolyn: My daughter and I are semi-estranged (her choice). She lives overseas.

Very rarely she confides in me when she is troubled, and I always walk on eggshells trying to give her advice, opinions or insight into the problem.

Recently she called to tell me she had witnessed her husband being too rough physically and emotionally with their son, my grandson. He is Mr. Mom to the family. She tells me in their 16 years of marriage, she's never seen him behave this way before. I certainly have seen it on several occasions.

I don't believe my son-in-law would beat the children, but he is too hard on them. Do I risk pushing my daughter further away, and possibly losing my tenuous but beautiful connection to my grandchildren, by telling her how strongly I feel about this? She knows my son-in-law and I don't particularly care for each other and I fear she will think I am badmouthing him because of that. She also resents what she often considers my intrusion into their lives. What should I do?

Carolyn says: What a helpless feeling this must be, I am so sorry. And nerve-racking.

But I don't see any benefit to telling your daughter "how strongly I feel." You identify the risk, I think rightly, that speaking up will only push her away — and what do you foresee accomplishing with your words, besides getting them off your chest?

Through emotional and physical distance, your daughter chose to have to navigate even serious problems mostly without your involvement. There's no avoiding that. The best thing you can do now for those kids is figure out what options you still have to be helpful to their parents, and to use them judiciously.

You were the parent of minor children once, of course — and no doubt you faced crises of your own. What helped you then? Would a relative saying some version of, "This is really bad and I'm very upset" have been useful to you back then?

We all handle crises our own ways, but that strikes me as near-universally unhelpful.

I suspect you'd have preferred:

"Oh, no — how did you respond?" [Room for reply.] "[Any sincere praise or sympathy you can offer.] Are you OK?" [Room for reply.] "What do you think you'll do now?" [Room for reply.] "Is there anything I can say or do to help with that, or would you rather I just listen?" [Room for reply.]

This template allows respect for the seriousness of the issue and respect for the competence of the person confiding in you — and where you'd normally want to share your feelings, which could come across as critical or judgmental, it instead allows sympathy for others' feelings. And it props the door for you to be asked to get involved.

If there are any words that qualify as magic, though, then it'll be these: "You're raising great kids. I know you'll find a way through this. I'm here for whatever you need." Trust is usually given when earned, yes — but don't underestimate the power any parent has to create trust by giving it out.

E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.