When you’re a parent in the throes of chaos, confusion and total exhaustion, your own parents and parents-in-law can serve as an immensely helpful support system. But for the sake of your well-being and the health of those special grandparent relationships, it may become necessary to establish some boundaries.
“When a couple has parents or in-laws that want to be overly involved with their children, the good news is that their children have more people in their life who love them and want to be around them! The bad news is that this can cause a great deal of tension if parents and in-laws do not respect the family’s time or values,” Becky Stuempfig, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Encinitas, California, told HuffPost.
Creating boundaries allows parents to clarify their needs, wants and comfort levels and helps foster healthy relationships with their parents and in-laws. It also helps children learn how to assert their needs and wants with other people and to handle disagreements in a respectful manner.
“By maintaining flexible boundaries, we can let people into our lives in a way that feels safe and supportive,” said Stuempfig. “Boundaries are one way that couples can work on solidifying their family identity and discover which values are important to them.”
So how exactly should parents go about setting boundaries with their own parents and in-laws without causing extra strife? HuffPost spoke to Stuempfig and other experts to find out.
Establish your own values.
Before communicating with grandparents, it’s important to have an open conversation with your partner to establish your values as parents and as a family. That way, you can present a united front and a clear message when broaching the issue.
“If I know my values, I can communicate my needs, boundaries, and standards to others with more clarity,” said Jacob Goldsmith, director of the Emerging Adulthood Program at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. “If I see my mom do something and don’t like it but haven’t thought about why, I’m probably going to snap back in a way that’s not very helpful.”
For example, many clients have told Goldsmith they want to raise emotionally intelligent children but believe their parents are stifling those efforts by discouraging their kids from crying or showing their feelings. Parents can talk to each other about the reasons they want to raise high-EQ children who feel comfortable expressing emotions and then ask grandparents to support this value.
“Boundaries are one way that couples can work on solidifying their family identity and discover which values are important to them.”
“You don’t have to have a perfectly polished list of values, but these are conversations worth having as a precursor to talking to parents or in-laws,” said Goldsmith. Getting on the same page as a couple and as co-parents makes attempts at boundary-setting much more effective.
“If your in-laws sense a split between you and your partner, they will triangulate ― meaning put themselves in the middle and place a wedge between you and your spouse,” said Fran Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California.
Once you’ve taken stock of your needs and values, try to have a preemptive conversation with your parents and in-laws rather than wait until issues arise.
“The best piece of advice I can give couples struggling with grandparents who overstep boundaries is to deal with it early,” said Stuempfig. “If you notice a pattern that you are uncomfortable with, having the difficult conversation early on will save a lot of future stress for everyone involved. When left unresolved, boundary violations will only intensify.”
If you have a reactive conversation in the heat of the moment, you’re likely to use an accusatory tone and have a hard time expressing your needs and values. Starting the discussion early also helps normalize boundary-setting, turning it into a proactive, positive move instead of a problem-solving tactic.
“Invite the grandparents to learn about your needs and values and to express their feelings about it,” said Goldsmith. “That way, you’re not later saying, ‘Hey, I don’t want you to talk to our kid about that.’ You’re saying, ‘Hey, remember when we had that conversation and talked about our values? That’s the kind of thing that bothers me.’ It’s much less inflammatory that way.”
Speak calmly and gently.
“In order to avoid being reactionary, or even worse, manipulative, always converse about setting boundaries when you are calm and settled down,” said Walfish. “It is extremely challenging to communicate kindly and fairly when you’re frustrated. Chill and then chat!”
Speaking in a gentle, soothing, direct way is more effective and gives the impression that your style of parenting is well-thought-out and has merit. If you’re in an emotional state, try to reason with yourself.
“You first need to say to yourself, ‘I care about this person and don’t want to spark a huge feud, so I’m going to assume their suggestions come from love and concern, even if I have a very different approach to how to raise a child,’” suggested Leonard Felder, a licensed psychologist in Los Angeles and author of “We See It So Differently.”
“It can be helpful for partners to be mindful that they are role models for their children, and children often mirror the communication they observe,” added Stuempfig. “If children overhear their parents talking disrespectfully about their grandparents, this causes a great deal of internal conflict that they may not know how to express, particularly for young children.”
Show your appreciation.
“Communication with parents and in-laws will be best received if it is approached with appreciation for the special role that grandparents play in a child’s life,” Stuempfig advised.
She also encouraged parents to consider the fact that they may be grandparents themselves someday and to reflect on the way they would like to be treated in this role. That way, they can go into the boundary-setting conversation with a greater sense of empathy and understanding.
“It can be helpful to start the conversation with an appreciative statement like, ‘It is so important to us that [insert name of son/daughter] has a good relationship with you and we love how much you want to spend time with him/her,‘” Stuempfig explained. “You can then follow it up with a respectful request such as ‘We understand his/her bedtime routine is a little different than what you are used to, and we would appreciate it if you stuck to the schedule we have set up.’”
If grandparents are dropping by unannounced, parents can kindly request a phone call in advance by saying something like, “We love seeing you guys and would appreciate a phone call before you come over so that we can make sure it’s a good time for our family,” Stuempfig added.
“If children overhear their parents talking disrespectfully about their grandparents, this causes a great deal of internal conflict that they may not know how to express.”
Felder echoed her approach, offering another script that leads with gratitude and kindness.
“You can say lovingly, ‘I truly appreciate how much you care, and I need your help here because I don’t want our kids to experience _____, and I’m hoping you can support us in making sure that happens when they are with you,’” he noted.
“If parents or in-laws are overly involved, you can say how much you appreciate their love for your kids and then admit humbly, ‘And sometimes I feel guilty that I have to set some limits. But for the sake of our kids, we need to do X or Y or Z. I hope you can support us in that.’”
Keep it simple.
“It is best to keep requests simple and avoid bringing the past into the present,” said Stuempfig. “For instance, if parents or in-laws often give you unsolicited advice about how to raise your children based on their parenting experience, consider this response: ‘Thank you for your words of wisdom. We will probably make lots of mistakes along the way, but we take pride in tackling these kinds of tough parenting situations on our own and we will reach out if we need extra support.’”
With grandparents who are willing to listen and take feedback, you can set simple, loose guidelines. “Boundaries paradoxically free people up to be themselves because they know the rules and can behave however they want within those parameters,” said Goldsmith. “My mom disciplines my son slightly differently than I do, and I think that’s OK. It just has to be under the same umbrella of what we’ve established is appropriate.”
For simplicity’s sake, it’s also best to have the partner whose parents are involved take the lead in initiating and managing the boundaries conversation with them. Otherwise, you may end up in a confrontational situation between a spouse and in-laws.
When loose boundaries don’t work with grandparents, it’s OK to get more specific.
“If parents or in-laws want to be involved in a way that feels excessive to the parents, I recommend giving grandparents a specific role they can play, such as picking up the kids from school on certain days, inviting them to children’s activities such as sports events, or coming over for Sunday dinners,” said Stuempfig.
“By clearly defining the bonding opportunities, parents communicate that they value the importance of spending time together while also feeling reassured that there will be a clear start and stop time to the gathering.”
Parents can also direct certain situations to avoid problems that have come up in the past.
“Say you don’t like the way your parents handle dinnertime with your kids. Don’t have your parents take them out for dinner. Make sure you’re around so you can monitor,” Goldsmith noted. “Or tell them where they can take your kids out to dinner and make it clear there are no other options.”
Keep things in perspective.
Assuming your child’s well-being is not at risk (in which case parents need to prioritize safety and take more intense measures), it’s OK to be a little flexible with grandparents’ different approaches. Ultimately, your kids know that you are the parents and the main adult figures in their lives, and it’s nice for them to have some quality moments with relatives from different generations.
“It’s not a life-or-death issue if your parent or in-law wants to serve an imperfect meal you would never serve,” said Felder. “Remind yourself that your kids will be able to go back to your way of doing things even if they get a little bit different rules and style from your parents and in-laws.” Kids “recognize that what is permissible with Mom and Dad is different from what is permissible with grandparents,” he said.
To keep things in perspective, parents can try to focus on the joy in grandchild-grandparent relationships and how they’re different from other relationships kids have.
“It can be helpful for parents to try to recall special moments with their own grandparents that they cherish. Typically, it’s the small, maybe quirky qualities that stand out ― Grandma’s candy bowls that you were allowed to enjoy without being reprimanded, music your grandfather liked to play in the car, special nicknames your grandparents had for you, small gifts they brought you, food they cooked, the stories they told you and so on,” said Stuempfig, noting that these small life moments become cherished memories.
She added, “If parents can try to embrace the quirks and understand that their child’s relationship with their grandparents is another layer of support in their child’s life, it can help create more joy in the family.”