Studies have shown that grandparents can positively impact their grandkids’ nutrition and mental health. While many parents acknowledge these benefits and aim to foster a loving bond between children and grandparents, it can still come with bumps in the road. If you feel like you struggle to see eye-to-eye with your parents when it comes to taking care of the kids, you’re not alone.
“Often, one of the biggest challenges of [being a parent] has to do with navigating the relationships and expectations of grandparents,” says Alisa Ruby Bash, licensed marriage and family therapist of Malibu, California. “Therapists’ offices are filled with new parents who are often quite disgruntled if these expectations are not managed properly from the onset.”
Trouble between generations can also crop up a year or more down the road. Below, parents share the ongoing conflicts they’ve encountered with their parents and in-laws, and experts weigh in on the best way to work through them.
Conflict #1: Parents feel like grandparents don’t respect their parenting rules
Cindy L., a mom from North Carolina, talks about her experience with an issue many parents seem to have with their own parents: a disregard for the parenting rules and strategies that they’re trying to follow.
“My mother-in-law tried to give cookies to our then 4-month-old, who wasn’t eating solids, and tried again at 6 months when we started solids but, um, not cookies,” she says.
Expert advice: What’s important to remember in any case like this is that the grandparent wants to feel needed and like her mothering skills — or, if it’s grandpa, his fathering skills — are useful, says Jeanette Raymond, a clinical psychologist and family therapist in Los Angeles.
“Tell [grandma or grandpa] that she has a lot to offer, and give her a structure and framework that works for you,” Raymond says.
She recommends giving them certain responsibilities that would be useful to tackle.
“Don’t worry about hurting feelings or turning the tap off,” Raymond says. “If you couch it in terms of how much it helps to do the things you want in the timeframe that works, the grandparent will be fine, because she or he gets a lot out of doing things that are wanted — not just tolerated or that get in the way.”
Conflict #2: Grandparents are confused by blurry boundaries around authority
Raymond points out that many parents struggle to set boundaries in the first place, and, in turn, conflict arises.
“Parents often use the grandparents to help out when things are tough and are happy to relinquish authority to the latter when they are stressed,” she says. “However, when the crisis or stress has passed, they often don’t clean up the blurred boundaries, leaving things in the air (and) making interactions tense.”
Exacerbating the issue: “Parents don’t want to antagonize the grandparents by snatching back authority in case they jeopardize the future when they might need the grandparents to take over care again,” Raymond says.
Louise, a grandmother from New Jersey, has experienced this with her son and his wife. She says she was on grandma duty while her daughter-in-law, who is a doctor, slept in after working an all-night shift at the hospital.
“I got up in the morning to get my granddaughters ready for school,” Louise says. “I had bought real cream cheese, because they like a toasted waffle or bagel with cream cheese. Well, it inflamed my daughter-in-law, because she only likes to buy tofu cream cheese.”
Expert advice: In this case, clarity is essential. If there are certain areas of authority that are non-negotiable, like decisions concerning a child’s diet, parents would do well to communicate those from the outset.
“Have ground rules about absolute authority, temporary authority and the fears around passing it back and forth,” Raymond says. “It makes everyone clearer and feel less used and abused. Spelling out what the authority involves when the care is passed to grandparents offers clear parameters.”
Conflict #3: Grandparents push for ‘old-school’ parenting strategies
Whether generational and/or cultural differences are at the core of the issue, parents may find themselves rolling their eyes at their parents’ seemingly antiquated ideas about child care. Kassandra S., a mom from from Ontario, Canada, has argued with her mom over “old-school beliefs, such as crib bumpers, letting baby sleep on stomach, cigarette smoke, eating healthier foods.”
Expert advice: Gathering more information here is key.
“They are so worried that they bring out all the old adages to soothe themselves and feel useful to parents in the process,” says Raymond, who advises talking to the grandparents about their anxiety regarding the welfare of the child.
Raymond explains that adapting to your child’s needs beats forcing a particular parenting theory.
“All that does is raise everyone’s anxiety, because baby probably won’t respond, since you aren’t tuning into him,” she says.
Presenting a united front and keeping messaging consistent will help, notes Tina Tessina, psychotherapist and author of “How to Be Happy Partners: Working It Out Together.”
She reminds parents who are dealing with this issue, “You and your partner need to decide what’s OK and not OK for the grandparents to do with the child. If you give the grandparents mixed messages, they’ll continue to behave in old, familiar ways. If you really insist on the new ways, they’ll come around.”
She also recommends finding articles or books that explain your methods, including literature from a pediatrician.
“That stops it being a fight between you and grandparents and introduces an outside authority,” Tessina says.
Conflict #4: Grandparents fear parents will ‘spoil’ their grandchild
Some more modern philosophies, like attachment parenting, may cause eyebrow-raising among grandparents who may then remark that their adult child is “spoiling” the little one.
Kassandra S., who encountered this as soon as her baby boy was born, says, “My mother thought I held my son too much and could ‘spoil’ a newborn baby.”
Expert advice: Tessina says that observing a lot of cuddling between you and your child may actually bring up emotional pain for the grandparent if it was lacking in their own infancy.
“They may not understand this, but it influences their reaction,” she says. “Also, if lack of cuddling or failure to bond was an issue, this grandparent might not know how to do it. Sharing modern information like an informational video or article with the grandparent can help with understanding.”
At the same time, Raymond reminds parents “that there isn’t such as thing as too much or too little, as the baby has differing needs at different times. Do what feels natural. Tune in to the baby’s needs, and let that be your guide.”
She recommends explaining to the grandparent that “you and baby know what works for both of you.”
Conflict #5: You’re not on the same page with religion
Jeanetta G., a mom from Lincoln, Nebraska, grapples with a hot-button issue many parents and grandparents find themselves at odds on: religious beliefs.
“We have the most conflict with religious beliefs with my mother-in-law,” she says. “She’s a devoted Catholic. My husband and I don’t follow any religious beliefs and learn more toward being atheist.”
When her sons were born, Jeanetta says she and her mother-in-law “nearly got into huge fights about her saying they had to be baptized.” And as the boys have gotten older, she says her mother-in-law “is trying to sneak her beliefs on them while we aren’t around.”
Expert advice: Agreeing to disagree may be the best bet when it comes to what is often a non-starter.
“Recognize that you don’t agree and have different world views,” Raymond says. “Talk about how you each have the right to your own views but not to force them on another or judge them accordingly.”
Conflict #6: One set of grandparents feels like they’re not getting the same amount of time with the child as the other set
Competition between sets of grandparents may flare up in this way. Megan N., from South Carolina, explains that because both sets of grandparents live near her family, their biggest struggle is making sure that “each gets ‘the same’ amount of time with their grandchildren.”
“It’s been an issue since the first was born,” she says. “Both sets of grandparents seem understanding, but it can be stressful for my husband and me. We can easily fall into a bad habit of keeping tallies.”
Expert advice: It may sound a bit ironic, but this one requires sitting down and having a conversation about sharing — with the grandparents.
It may not need to be said explicitly, but Raymond reminds parents that “no set or sets of grandparents have ‘rights’ to their grandchildren. It’s a gift, and those offering gifts can choose and give as they see fit.”
That said, you’ll do well to “have a conversation about not making baby into an object or toy that has to be shared equally between two sets of grandparents,” Raymond says. “Talk about baby sensing the tension and ownership — not love and acceptance — and growing up feeling torn.” Therefore, for the child’s wellbeing, grandparents sharing time and space with one another is key.
Conflict #7: Parents feel like grandparents aren’t respecting their need for space
Cindy E. says her mother-in-law “used to show up unannounced. She’s gotten better over the years, but we still have boundary issues with her.”
Bash says, as a psychologist, she has seen this plenty of times before.
“In the beginning, a parent might welcome a grandparent’s visit,” she says. “But, suddenly, hormones kick in, lack of sleep, pain or just the need for peace and quiet. That can be extremely awkward when the grandparent doesn’t get that visiting hours need to be over.”
Expert advice: Bash suggests the grandparents’ child communicate that “visits need to be kept to an hour or so until the baby is older and mom or dad has slept enough. At the end of the day, all issues between new parents and grandparents come down to clear communication, boundaries and having faith in their right to make the best decisions for their children.”