When the grandparents interfere

Oct, 19, 2020

“We’ve had none of that behaviour when they were with us”... you hear your mother-in-law say when you pick up your children after a much deserved night off and your children seem to melt down the minute they see you.

Explaining to your child’s grandparent that this is what children do where they feel safe enough to do so – especially after time apart – can feel futile. Grandma seems to take pride in her ability to run a tight ship and believes that her magic touch is generally what’s needed in your parenting. Besides, her remark makes you wonder if you really are missing the ‘magic touch’ in your parenting – the one that resulted in the respectful and well behaved person that is you. So you say nothing.

How DO you say something?! When on the one hand you might yearn for the wise words and experiences of the older generation but when in reality you often feel criticised, not-good enough or alone in ever having ever had parental challenges when your parents or parents-in-law share their thoughts?

Grandparents mean well

Grandparents mean well. But your mother (in-law) may have forgotten to extend the warmth and understanding towards the one person who needs it the most; you – and instead channelled it onto her grandchildren thinking that criticism or disapproving remarks will motivate you to make the ‘necessary changes’.

Grandparents mean well. But your parents (in-law) may have forgotten what it’s like to be in the thick of it. To not be able to remember the last night you had a full night’s sleep, shaved your legs or had an uninterrupted adult conversation for longer than 3 minutes. Much like it’s easy to forget how challenging ones own children can be when (child free) you pass another parent in Tesco who’s losing it because of a tantruming child.

Grandparents mean well. But your parents (in-law) may be struggling to make sense of the current parenting paradigm shift. Often mistaking mutual respect for permissive parenting – and perplexed by the tendency for our generation of parents to engage in parenting courses and seeking advice about something as natural and instinctive as parenting.

Grandparents mean well. Although throw away comments or direct critique can make it very difficult to see this. But no matter how you differ in your approach to parenting, whether your in-laws are ‘ex-in-laws’ or you just generally feel annoyed by comments made, you share one important thing in common; a great love of your child(ren).

While you might not want to dismiss your parent’s comments or advice – you might have found yourself at times feeling less empowered and more ashamed by well-meaning responses and pocket analyses of your child’s different developmental stages.

Setting boundaries need not mean cutting anyone off

Whether you feel deeply offended or mildly triggered by your parents (-in-law) actions and opinions I think it is useful to remember that boundaries are essential where close relationships are concerned. Unless we are able to communicate what we feel and what we’d like, any form of intimacy and close relationship is going to be difficult. Sadly, relying on our disapproving facial expression to communicate how we feel – generally won’t get the message across.

Where many of us go wrong is that we end up setting our boundaries in unnecessarily harsh ways.

I’m going to tell her who’s in charge – you might think – and before you know it – years of pent up frustration and hurt ends up driving a wedge between you – or leading you to say things you later regret.
Nor is this fair. Neither is this helpful.

After all, we all want for our parents and in-laws to be part of the family unit. The key to good boundary setting is to set our boundaries as we go. This way we avoid having to settle a big bill after countless episodes of having bitten our tongue. Much like a deflating a balloon – you want to let the air out in little spurts so that the balloon doesn’t get out of control when you let the go.

4 signposts for effective boundary setting

Consider these 4 points when you want to set boundaries – whether your current tendency is to bite your tongue -or you often end up being too harsh.

  1. Acknowledge the positive intention.
    This can be difficult. And might require a bit of meditating. But your child means the world to his/her grandparent – so there is a good chance that whatever is said is well-intentioned (even if this doesn’t benefit you).

    “I know that you love our girls. And that you want the best for

    “I appreciate your concern”

    If we want our parents or in-laws to listen without defending or taking offence – it is crucial that we show that we can see the good intention.

  2. Rather than immediately defending – ask yourself; is there any truth to what they are saying?
    I know in my own parenthood that the less confident I feel the more triggering any remark or comment about my children will feel.

    In other words – consider how freeing it would feel to not defend but instead be able to acknowledge and own the fact that yes – there are things that you don’t currently know / have the skill set to handle / understand about yourself / child.

    This isn’t easy. Especially if you feel criticised. But try anyway to see if what they describe as a problem is a problem for you too. This doesn’t mean that you condone the way your parents / in-laws are addressing this – not does it mean that they necessarily have the right answer.

  3. Tell them how you feel about their input
    Nothing would be more convenient than doing what we always do when we feel hurt, disrespected and frustrated; say nothing and instead vent to our partner or go to the other extreme by setting harsh boundaries that lead to more conflict.

    This is the ‘either or’ / ‘black and white’ approach.
    And it’s an easy trap to fall into. Have you noticed how this rarely gets you to where you want to go? Because no one can take anything onboard when they’re being attacked. And for those of you who feel under attack by parents / parents-in-law you will know this all too well. Similarly, few of us are mind-readers – so saying nothing and instead harbouring resentment is not a viable solution either.

    If we would like to get to new places we will have to be willing to try new routes.

    A mutually respectful response could sound something like:

    “I don’t see it that way”
    “I / we look at it differently”
    “It doesn’t feel supportive for me when …”
    “I can see where you’re coming from.. but we believe this is the right way”

  4. What do you need from them going forward?
    For your parents or your parents-in-law it might be useful to be clear about what you would like from them. After setting a boundary it is a good idea to add direction – or we end up getting stuck.

    “I know that for you it might look like we are not doing the right thing. We may not be. But we are doing what feels right for us as a family. And I would really appreciate if I could get your support and space to do so without throwing doubt into the mix whenever we are together. Would you be able to do that?”

    Much like a child who’s intention is to play with you- but is being annoying in his attempts to do so – simply saying no – without offering direction is rarely going to make the annoying behaviour stop. We need to find different ways of being together.

Why are we so much less sure in our parenting?

Parenting IS different today. No two generations have had the same challenges and opportunities which means it makes little sense look to the past for the solution to all of our parenting challenges.

One of the reasons that today’s generation of parents are seeking new answers and appear a lot less sure is because the last 30 years have seen a major overhaul in the understanding of children through advances in neuro- and developmental psychology. This has given rise to new ways of understanding the parent-child relationship and has meant that you might find that you are trying to parent from a script that isn’t always matching the one you were raised by yourself.

Being unsure – is not necessarily a bad thing. But it can be uncomfortable.

  • If I don’t want to send my child to his room when he’s misbehaved – what do I do instead to teach accountability AND emotional resilience?
  • If too much praise gives rise to insecurity – how do I acknowledge more?
  • If children’s thoughts and feelings matter- how do I raise children who don’t dominate and rule the roost?
  • How do I lead – and acknowledge at the same time?

Whether you are consciously aware of having these thoughts, these dilemmas are some of the common reasons that parenting can feel more complicated today than ever before. We are aware of a what doesn’t work. What we aren’t to do. But what to put in its place is somewhat vague to many of us.

Modern parenting is less about being right – or seeing it as our birthright to demand respect from our children – and more about being willing to view our own way of being as a significant factor in our children’s willingness and ability to cooperate with us.

This is a vulnerable process. And one that easily gives rise to shame and defensiveness. And grandparents and other well intentioned outsiders do well to remember that children today are largely viewed as a direct reflection of their parents. So if my child is struggling – the question that immediately arises is often: “What have I done wrong”

The eyes that say: “You are not alone”

I try to remember, when passing a struggling and shouty mum in the supermarket – that one thing that isn’t going to help that child is my disapproving look. Shame doesn’t give rise to better behaviour. Empathy does.

A warm smile that communicates that ‘I’ve been there too’ – allows us to not feel alone. Ashamed and judged. And the more we can meet each other in this way – the more we can truly lift and support each other.

Louise Brooks

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