Grandparents usually mean well. Like you, they want your child to become a great adult, but their way of showing this can cause problems. Sometimes they may seem controlling, undermining, manipulative, overbearing, or critical. They can make you feel insecure, incompetent, or small. (Imagine my thumb and pointer finger getting closer and closer to each other.) You both have desires and expectations. Sometimes, they clash and the grandparents overstep boundaries they may not even know they’ve crossed.
It can be anything: food choices, entertainment, clothing, the holidays, discipline, etc. Things they don’t think are a big deal may be huge for you. You want a good relationship with your parents and in-laws. You also want your kids to have good relationships with their grandparents. In your mind, the boundaries are designed to protect that relationship.
So what do you do when the grandparents overstep boundaries?
1. Start by resolving in your mind the reason for the boundary.
This helps you clarify why it’s important to you. How does the boundary help the child and/or family?
2. Is there a bigger issue?
Are they overstepping because of fear? Do they fear their grandchildren won’t like them as much if they don’t give them more sweets or grander holiday gifts? Maybe they’re afraid their grandkids won’t know them well if they don’t see them “enough.” They may just think the boundary is unnecessary. It’s also possible they’re trying to make up for lost time.
You don’t have to know all the answers, but talking through them with your spouse and the grandparents with an open mind can help you address bigger issues.
1. Get on one page with your spouse.
Understand 1) the boundary, 2) how it was crossed, and 3) the reason for the boundary. It’s common for the boundary to be “more important” to one spouse than the other. But sticking to the boundaries (whether you agree on the level of importance or not) is essential.
2. Talk to the grandparent.
It’s generally better for the biological child to talk to their own parent privately, away from the kids or others, though both spouses being present is a good thing. You may start the conversation with, “I was bothered when you __________,” or “I was disappointed when I heard _______________,” or “I felt disrespected as their parent when you __________.” Notice the use of “’I” statements. You’re not calling them a bad grandparent or accusing them of being something negative. You’re addressing how you felt when a particular event happened.
3. Ask why?
Tone matters. Body language matters even more than words. This part of the conversation may help you understand if there are bigger issues.
4. Stay on-topic.
Focus on the main issue, not about whether you’re a good parent or how they felt at the last holiday dinner.
5. If grandparents keep overstepping, then adjust.
However, be specific about the reasons why. Perhaps you skip a few holidays or don’t let the kids stay the night with their grandparents for a while. Be clear. This isn’t about the grandparent feeling the same way about your boundaries or trying to be someone they aren’t. It’s about raising your family and creating the family culture how you see fit.
6. Search for areas of compromise.
(I don’t mean compromising the expectation to respect boundaries.) As parents and kids grow, boundaries may change. What kids can watch on TV may change. For instance, if what grandparents feed your children is an issue, a compromise may be that the child and grandparent can prepare food to eat together once a month.
7. Separate the act from the character.
The grandparent may be manipulative, controlling, or judgmental. Pointing out their actions and crossed boundaries is more concrete and tangible than calling them manipulative. Instead of saying, “You’re manipulative. You give them gifts you know we don’t approve of,” you could say, “When you gave them that gift for Christmas that we didn’t approve of, I felt like you were manipulating to get them to like you.” Remember, the goal is to help the grandparent have good relationships with your family.
If the grandparent expresses an understanding and a realization that they overstepped a boundary, then forgive them. Don’t hold the grudge forever. If it becomes a pattern, you can still forgive as you adjust. (See number 6.)
Your child’s grandparents may have strong opinions about boundaries, and it’s tough for some to respect their child as a parent. If you’re willing to stand with your spouse and have some tough conversations, you can help everyone transition to this new phase in everyone’s relationship.