What to Do When Grandparents Overstep Boundaries
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.
So, You Need to Talk to Your In-Laws About Boundaries
What To Do When Grandparents Undermine Your Parenting
No one else in my dad’s world compared to his granddaughters. “My little angels,” he would call them. Which I thought was great, except he tended to be extremely lenient with them. Like when they wanted ice cream. Which was all the time. Or when they wanted a toy. Nothing was too good for his little angels (or too much, or too often.)
What resulted was some tension and a lot of disagreement. I wanted to teach my children the value of moderation, patience, and the lesson in life that you don’t always get what you want. But it seemed when they were with my dad, those lessons were off the table.
So what do you do when grandparents seem to want to undermine all the good things you’re trying to do with your parenting?
The first thing to know is that you’re not alone. In a national poll asking parents of children ages 0-18 about parenting disagreements with grandparents, conducted by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, a vast majority of the families (89%) reported their kids saw a grandparent often or occasionally. And, out of those families, 43% said they had either minor or major disagreements with the grandparents about parenting choices: either the grandparents were too lenient, too tough, or both. That’s a significant number.
The most common disagreements included: issues of discipline (at #1), meals and snacks, TV and screen time, manners, and matters of health and safety—all very important parenting issues.
You may very well relate with the above families, especially in our current climate. At the moment, COVID-19 has upset many work and school schedules, prompting many grandparents to watch the kiddos while parents return to their physical workplace.
No matter what your situation, there are some tactics you can use to handle parenting disagreements with the grandparents.
Perhaps the most important step, before doing any kind of confrontation with the grandparents, is to ask yourself some important questions.
Maybe you’ve already done this but bear with me. Regarding my dad, I’ve had to ask myself, what is my biggest fear with this situation? What’s the worst that will happen? Is my dad’s grandparenting style something that could have a lasting negative impact on my children? Are the grandparents really trying to undermine our parenting efforts?
That last question is important. With my dad, I couldn’t say honestly that I thought there would be any lasting negative effect on my kids. However, that’s not always the case. A helpful way to think about this is using the “Casual, Important, Vital” exercise.
Make three lists and begin with “Vital.” What are the non-negotiable parts of parenting that you feel would have a lasting impact? In your parenting world, this may include using a car seat or viewing things on-screen that would be inappropriate for your child.
Then, what is “Important?” These are the areas which may not have as much of a lasting impact, but you feel are still important for your kids, (perhaps) such as saying “no sir” and “no ma’am” or remembering to brush their teeth at night.
And finally, what can you chalk up as “Casual?” Are there areas that really have no lasting impact that I may have been overly concerned about? For me, my dad feeding them ice cream on every visit didn’t do any kind of damage in the long run, and I had to learn to let it go.
There is no instruction manual for what is Vital, Important, or Casual in parenting; these are designations you have to define for your own family (although I would strongly recommend considering the majority of safety and health issues in the vital category).
Keep lines of communication open with grandparents.
Talk to them not only about the next time they are slated to watch the grandkids; share with them how parenting is going, the challenges you have, the values you are wanting to instill and allow them to speak into the conversation. Keep the conversation relaxed, open, and with no agenda. Simply share the experiences of parenting with the grandparents, and listen to their own experiences and input.
This helps both parents and grandparents come to a better understanding of each other’s styles with the kids and find ways you are on the same page. In case disagreements do come up in the conversation, keep the climate of the conversation relaxed and matter-of-fact (or opinion). It’s helpful for each spouse to talk to their own parents in these conversations; this helps to avoid the burden of tension and misunderstandings between in-law relationships.
Acknowledge grandparents’ efforts, both big and small.
An interesting part of the survey mentioned earlier is that when grandparents were asked to change how they treated their grandchildren, nearly half actually changed; however, the other half either said they would change and didn’t, or they just flat out refused. It makes me wonder how many of the latter grandparents were ever affirmed and appreciated for their relationship with their grandkids. At the end of the day, grandparents simply want to have a good relationship with their grandchildren. It gives them meaning and mission. It’s possible the only thanks they get for that is from their grandchildren.
✦ Acknowledge them for being active grandparents in your kids’ lives. Thank them for all they do. Even if the relationship with them is amicable at best, find those little things—and there are always little things—that you can show appreciation to them for. You never know when that might make the difference in seeing eye-to-eye with your parenting wishes.
Speak favorably about grandparents in front of children.
I didn’t always do this well. When we were about to visit my parents, I would subtly give snark in front of the kids as to how much ice cream would be served or how expensive the toys they came home with would be. This was not helpful to anyone and sent confusing messages to my kids as to how they were supposed to respond to their grandparents.
What I did change was how I prepared my kids for a visit. I would say something to the effect of, “Your grandfather loves to give you things and let you eat lots of good treats. That’s because he loves you very much. Just be sure to be very respectful not to ask for something that hasn’t been offered to you [this was my parental response to my kids’ tendency to ask for every toy in the aisle], and be sure to say thank you when you do get something. And of course, you already know that time with your grandparents is a special time. We don’t always get ice cream after every dinner. But I want you to appreciate how much your grandparents love you and the time they want to be with you.”
Consider the energy level, health, and endurance of grandparents.
One mistake I’ve made is assuming my parents were able to parent in the same way I do. Depending on many things, they may not have the energy to keep on the kids the way younger parents do, especially with younger kids who are more active and rambunctious. Sometimes it’s just easier to give the kids an ice cream cone just to keep them in one place! Putting this in perspective has helped me come to terms with some of the differences we have in handling my kids.
Disagreements as to how to treat the grandkids is often multifaceted and complex. It’s easy to think grandparents are trying to undermine your parenting on purpose or out of spite; I have learned from my own parents that they simply want to cherish the time they have with their grandchildren. They want to be an important part of their lives. That’s something I can’t disagree with and actually want for them. Determine what’s vital and what’s casual, keep the communication lines open, and show as much appreciation as you can. These steps will help both sides understand that you are all on the same team of raising great kids to be great adults.
Image from Pexels.com
Does family structure impact loneliness? For decades, concern has been expressed about how family breakdown impacts children. But the future impact on adults hasn’t received much attention. That’s changing.
In 2018, a Cigna study set off alarms about loneliness and its potential root causes. It indicated loneliness is at epidemic proportions in America.
In an article for City Journal, Kay Hymowitz, William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boysand The New Brooklyn: How to Bring a City Back, addresses how the rise in the breakdown of the family has created an increase in kinlessness. This phenomenon is impacting older adults in profound ways.
Hymowitz cites studies, including one by Ashton M. Verdery and Rachel Margolis, that showed a surge in the number of “kinless” older adults.
“A jump in the number of never-married and divorced adults is also part of the kinlessness story,” writes Hymowitz. “Baby boomers were the first generation to divorce in large numbers. They continue to split up even as they amble into their golden years. This gives rise to the phenomenon known as “gray divorce.”
Hymowitz also cites Robert Putnam’s work Bowling Alone, where Putnam raised the caution flag about the decline people were experiencing in social capital, especially the likelihood that boomers would experience a lonelier old age than the greatest generation before them.
Divorced people don’t typically have ex-spouses who are willing to take care of them in their old age or illness. Nor do stepchildren typically care for stepparents as they would care for their biological parent. Even biological parents who walked away from their children now find themselves navigating old age alone.
Verdery and Margolis summarize their findings. “Evidence is accumulating that the legacy of divorce and remarriage has a long reach straining intergenerational relationships and suppressing the support that divorced parents, stepparents and remarried biological parents might expect from their children later in life.”
Additionally, Hymowitz mentions cohabitation as a key ingredient in the rise of kinlessness.
“Superficially, cohabitation looks roughly equivalent to marriage; couples live together as ‘husband and wife,’ sharing a bed, living space, meals and in many cases children, but without the ring and city-hall certificate,” Hymowitz says. She asserts that the increase in couples who are living together has added to the fragility of post-transition relations.
Cohabiting couples break up faster and more often than married couples. Separated, cohabiting fathers prove more likely to withdraw from their children’s lives than divorced dads. Cohabiting and single parents have looser ties to their own parents and friends than marrieds. Plus, the Cigna study found that single parents as a whole represent the loneliest Americans.
“Even evolutionary-psychology skeptics, might notice that though marriage has shape-shifted over the centuries and across cultures, it has always defined those people – spouses, parents, children, grandparents, siblings, in-laws – to whom we owe special attention and mutual protection,” Hymowitz says. “Marriage creates kin; cohabitation does not. Some of the most crucial obligations of kinship have always been to tend to the sick and to bury the dead.”
It is worth noting that even today, the vast majority of unpaid caretaking of the aging in the U.S. is done by relatives, according to Putnam.
Hymowitz surmises that a lot of what’s happening is due to a change of what the family is. Hymowitz points out that kinless elders often show hoarder tendencies. They hang on to every stray electric bill, used coffee cup or odd bit of broken furniture. They cling to their stuff for lack of meaningful human interaction.
“Uprootedness uproots everything except the need for roots,” wrote American historian Christopher Lasch. Hymowitz believes one of our greatest challenges is to communicate that need to coming generations before they make decisions that will further fragment their lives and communities.
In conclusion, Hymowitz reminds us that the policy discussions about the troubles of the American working class and poor center on vocational and technical education, higher-paying and reliable jobs and benefits. These are necessary efforts, but they are not enough to counter the loneliness, kinlessness and despair crushing so many spirits. The solution must include what Tom Wolfe called a “great relearning.” This great relearning includes how to satisfy the human longing for continuity and connection.
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Becoming a new grandparent can be just as complicated as being first-time parents. While you are excited about this new addition to the family, you also have to figure out exactly what your role will be as the grandparent.
“We have to constantly remind each other that the parents of our grandchildren are inexperienced,” say Tim and Darcy Kimmel, grandparents and the authors of the video series Grandparenthood: More than Rocking Chairs and the book Grace-Based Parenting.
“We know more because we have lived longer. But that doesn’t mean we should question what they are doing as parents when it comes to discipline, feeding or putting the baby down for a nap. They know their child better than we do. Our role is to encourage, support and be an ally, not a liability.”
The Kimmels encourage grandparents never to sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the immediate by trying to manipulate situations or trying to control their adult children. If you sabotage the relationship with your adult child by being critical, controlling, petty or catty, you may sacrifice the relationship with your grandchildren as well. These behaviors tend to make people want to back away from the relationship versus embracing it.
The Kimmels believe grandparents can be most helpful when they give their children the freedom to:
- Be different. Just because your kids don’t parent exactly the same way you did does not mean they are doing it wrong. Give them the freedom to be goofy, quirky or weird.
- Be vulnerable. Be intentional about making your relationship one that allows them to let their guard down. Be sure they know their moments of weakness and insecurity about being parents won’t be used against them.
- Make mistakes. Most of us weren’t perfect in our parenting so don’t place unrealistic expectations upon your children. New parents need support instead of someone questioning their every move.
- Be candid. Allow them to be candid with you when you have crossed the line. Being candid is more than being honest; it is thinking about the best interest of the receiver as you share information. If you allow them to be candid with you they are more likely to let you be candid with them.
“Being a grandparent gives you the opportunity to live the idealistic dream of parenthood where you don’t have to worry about diapers, soccer practice, dance lessons and waiting up for teenagers,” Tim Kimmel says. “Grandparenthood allows you to play a key role in writing the history of a generation that you will someday leave in charge.”
Let parents do what they do best: worry about diapers, nap times, discipline, etc. Enjoy your role as an encourager to your grown children as well as your grandchildren.
Click here to read the entire article, which was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on November 4, 2018.
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