When you become a parent and start raising kids, grandparents can be a huge blessing or a big headache — and usually, both. On the plus side, grandparents share support and knowledge garnered over the years, help with child care and serve as a loving extension of the family. On the other side of the spectrum, they may want to spoil your children, dole out unsolicited advice or “stop by” every single day of the week. As you figure out your parenting style, it’s tricky to strike the balance between respecting your elders and making your own decisions, which can lead to conflict.
The solution? Communication. No matter the grandparent dynamic, here are three conversations you absolutely need to have with grandparents to clarify roles, set the tone for positive relationships, and find some common ground.
Convo #1: Who’s in Charge?
Once, during a visit with grandparents, my two-year-old raced past me at 9 p.m. with a handful of Twizzlers. “Uh, we’re done with sugar,” I said, raising my eyebrows at my father-in-law. “I only gave him a few, it won’t hurt him!” He replied. I remember feeling frustrated, annoyed and most of all, undermined. My son had already skipped his nap and barely ate any dinner, and seemed to be living on juice and candy—which I knew would make the rest of the evening difficult. Also, I’m the parent. Didn’t I get to make the rules?
Experts say this type of scenario is incredibly common, and seemingly minor things — like bedtimes, eating habits, timeouts, just “stopping by” to say hi—can actually create major problems. “The top conversation parents need to have [with grandparents] is what everyone’s roles should look like,” says Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a licensed psychologist and marriage counselor in Boulder, CO. “When you’re all together, who should be allowed to discipline the child? Who has the final say? Who decides what the child will eat or go to bed? Who’s in charge? Processing through these questions and negotiating a compromise when needed will help everyone get on the same page and create a unified front.”
According to therapist Sarah Bauer, it’s all about boundaries. For example, when a parent says no to something, and then a grandparent says yes, this creates issues of entitlement and authority. Both parties think they know best, and to some extent, there’s value on both sides—new parents are familiar with the day-in, day-out routine of their child, and grandparents have decades of knowledge from raising their own kids. The only difference? Just as your parents felt empowered to make decisions and set limits on your behalf as a child, now that you’re a grown adult parenting your kid, you get to do the same thing. It can be hard for some grandparents to accommodate that power shift, so if you’re struggling, be sure to set clear boundaries in a respectful way.
“Setting firm boundaries is key to managing overbearing grandparents,” adds Raffi Bilek, family therapist and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center. “Grandparents often want to comment on your parenting techniques, the children’s manners, and anything else they feel they know better about. They are welcome to hold such opinions, but they might not be welcome to share them with you. If you prefer not to receive this kind of helpful advice, make a firm but kind statement that you would prefer if they did not give you advice on parenting (or whatever other subject it might be) without your asking them. Let them know what you will do if they choose not to abide by your request, whether you will end the conversation, leave the room, not invite them back, etc. Then, stick to your boundary as needed. They may never change their opinions, but if they want to keep a relationship with you, they will eventually have to respect your boundaries. Start with an appreciation for the knowledge and good intentions of the grandparents, followed only afterward with a request to leave the parenting to the parents and not interfere, no matter how well-meaning they may be.”
Convo #2: What Are the Rules? Is There Any Leeway?
Almost every time we see my mom, she brings a gift for my son. In some ways, that sounds really nice, right? But as much as I appreciated her extreme generosity, and her desire to support us or do something nice for our kid, it also added up to a whole bunch of stuff (that we usually didn’t need) crowding our home. At the same time, I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, and I knew she truly meant well—so we talked it over, and agreed that she would give me a head’s up first when she wanted to buy or bring something. That way, I could say “no thanks” if we really didn’t need something, or I could make the decision to let it slide, knowing my mom’s love language is gift-giving and it’s fun for her to “spoil” her grandkid.
“Most grandparents want to spend time with their grandchildren,” says Bauer. “They may want to spoil them and give them gifts or take them places. This may come off as overbearing if they consistently do so, or create a dilemma when a parent says no to an item, but the grandparent ultimately gives it to them. To help prevent this, create boundaries around activities and gift-giving. Inform the grandparents of things for grandparents and grandchildren can do together and of what gifts would be appropriate to give the grandchildren. This way, grandparents feel included in their grandchildren’s lives without undermining the parents.”
Also, says Dr. Fisher, don’t get too focused on your boundaries and rights as a parent. Pick your battles and use discernment in deciding which behaviors from your parents are worth a discussion and what ones aren’t. Obviously, there are some situations where a relationship with a grandparent isn’t appropriate, and you can absolutely hold steady on certain boundaries to prioritize the health and safety of your children and family.
Convo #3: How Can Grandparents Best Help?
You know what my dad is exceptionally good at? Making dinosaur noises. You know what he’s not good at? Putting my son down for a nap. And really, that’s fine. His job as a grandparent is to enjoy time with his grandson; he thrives on belly laughs and coloring and cuddling. I’ve learned to meet grandparents in the middle — if my kid doesn’t fall asleep at exactly 2 p.m., then whatever, but I can still ask my dad to make sure he gets some sort of nap throughout the day.
Because in the end, I just want my kid to be safe and happy in the company of his grandparents. Even in challenging moments, I try to assume the best, view my parents and in-laws as a support system of allies and focus on letting them help me and my husband.
“Begin the conversation with giving them the benefit of the doubt, that they probably don’t mean any harm and are only trying to be helpful,” says Dr. Fisher. “Instead of telling them what you want them to do differently, ask what their thoughts are and how you could compromise and meet in the middle. Your parent is more likely to work with you if they don’t feel dictated to and like they can contribute to the solutions.”