Grandparents can play a wonderful role in children’s lives and they make a unique contribution to families. They can bring love, support, perspective, fun, free time and an extra pair of hands or listening ear. But relationships between parents and grandparents can also be fraught. It’s not uncommon for parents to feel judged, undermined or intruded upon by grandparents’ family interactions. And if you are lucky enough to have them close by, managing grandparents can become an ongoing challenge.
Here’s my quick guide to managing grandparents, common conflicts and how to resolve them.
Managing grandparents’ unsolicited advice
The problem with unsolicited parenting advice is that we usually experience it as criticism. Being told what we ‘should’ be doing feels pretty much like being told that we are doing it ALL wrong. And when the topic in question is the most precious and sensitive in your whole life (aka your child), it seldom goes down well.
Resolution: Assume the best. Try to remember that the misplaced advice is almost certainly being given with good intentions. Grandparents know from experience how hard it can be raising children and they want to help (and to shortcut your learning for you). It’s meant well, so try to avoid getting emotional or offended. If a grandparent offers unwanted advice, just nod and smile and do it your own way. Or, make it clear that you value them but will ask for advice if you need it. (“I really appreciate your support. I will definitely ask for advice if I need it, but I want to do this my way“). If you find constant criticism hurtful, tell them that straight and ask them to stop.
Managing grandparents’ overindulgence
The brilliant thing about being a grandparent is getting to share all the best bits of children but walking away from the difficult bits. Sometimes this comes out as full-on spoiling – buying excessive presents, feeding the kids chocolate, letting them do things they know they’re not allowed.
Resolution: Most grandparents only get to see their grandchildren occasionally. They don’t get all the lovely snuggly benefits of daily wet kisses and bedtime stories. So they can be forgiven for trying to leverage some extra love and affection when they are around. A little bit of occasional and affectionate spoiling is not going to do any harm. So bite your tongue, if you can, and try to be happy about the loving relationship your kids have with their grandparents. If it’s too much or too often (or if grandparents are involved in regular childcare), you may need to set some rules. But you’ll find it easier to resolve if you acknowledge their needs and look for compromises. (“I know it makes you happy to buy toys for Eve but she already has so many and I want her to learn the value of things. Can we find a compromise that would keep us both happy?“).
Sometimes, grandparents expect unlimited access. They want to be in on everything. The first feed, the first bath, first steps, first words, first day at school….. While involved grandparents can be a major bonus when it comes to getting some time to yourself, over-involvement can often come with a lot of opinions/advice/indulgence. Or it can just get in the way of you and your partner setting up your own family and building your life together.
Resolution: Grandparents can feel displaced from the centre of your life when a child comes along. Or maybe they are trying to work through mistakes they feel they made with their own children. Or perhaps, they just love being connected with their grandchildren and enjoy their company! Rather than pushing them away, try to set some habits that will help you manage the contact. You could say “It’s brilliant that you want to spend time with Ethan, that’s so supportive. He gets really grumpy when he’s out of his routine so it helps most if you come over in the afternoons/on Saturdays/for just a couple of hours.”
The opposite can also be a huge issue. Having young children is a really tough period in any family and you may have expectations for support from your parents or parents-in-law that are not being met. I have talked to so many parents who are near the end of their tether but don’t feel like help is forthcoming from their families. Grandparents may be far away or happily filling their lives with all the things they couldn’t do when they were younger because of work and children. If yours isn’t the first grandchild, they may have already got over the flush of excitement of being grandparents. Or being with kids just isn’t their thing.
Resolution: If you need help, be straightforward and ask for it. Don’t allow reluctance to admit that you are struggling get in the way. Be direct and ask for what you want. If they can’t give that, ask them what they might be able to do. They might just have been waiting for you to ask….
Managing grandparents who won’t stick to your rules
This is a particular problem when grandparents are regularly involved in babysitting or childcare. Whereas occasional spoiling is acceptable, rule-breaking by grandparents who are part of your regular childcare arrangements is more problematic.
Resolution: Make the rules crystal clear. If problems arise, have constructive problem-solving discussions (away from the children). Own the problem, don’t distribute blame. And aim for collaborative and explicit solutions: “I find it really hard when you let Ollie snack in the afternoons because then he doesn’t eat his dinner and gets hungry right before bed. Please can we find a solution?” (See When parents disagree about parenting for ideas on collaborative problem solving strategies)
Good luck! And please do leave your tips and experiences in the comments – share the pains and the gains!
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