Grandparents who don’t follow parents’ rules are a tradition as old as time, but polarisation over pandemic safety guidelines, social unrest, and a contentious election are among the many ways that disagreements between loved ones now have more serious implications. Grandma or grandpa sneaking candy to grandkids whose parents don’t want them to have sweets seems downright pleasant compared to families with relatives explaining to kids how voting machines rigged the election or that COVID-19 vaccines contain Satan’s microchips.
Those are obviously extreme examples, but the current climate in the United States has caused varying levels of disagreements and tested value systems even for relatives with healthy extended-family dynamics.
In those instances, when grandparents, aunts, uncles, or other relatives overstep parental boundaries — but do so in a generally loving way — what are the best ways to curb that behaviour? We asked Dr. Matthew Mulvaney, an associate professor and parenting researcher at the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University. His teaching and research are focused on understanding how parents and families support optimal child development.
Try to understand the other perspective
There are obviously larger values that people won’t compromise on, but in some cases, overstepping boundaries can be simple misunderstandings. Mulvaney notes that minor boundary transgressions can also be present in co-parenting relationships, where both parties love and have the best interest of the child at heart, but approach parenting in different ways.
“I think with all of these questions, you are trying to approach it in as non-judgmental a manner as possible, meet them where they’re at, and get their point of view before expressing your POV,” he says.
Especially in inter-generational relationships, there are always going to be differences in how parents and grandparents interact because of different lived experiences. When boundary transgressions aren’t malicious in nature, it’s important to have some level of empathy for how they’re intended.
Parents can and should draw the boundaries they feel comfortable with and believe are important for the wellbeing of their children, but even when those boundaries are crept up on or crossed, it’s still possible to try and understand where they’re coming from.
“Try to meet them where they’re at and understand their perspective before planting a stake in the ground,” Mulvaney says.
Navigating co-parenting relationships is not easy, whether co-parenting with a particularly difficult ex or with a former partner you generally have a positive relationship with. Most people are not irredeemable jerks, though, and when the focus of a co-parenting relationship can continuously be centered around the needs of the children...Read more
Communicate and speak up for what you want
A good first step in establishing a parenting boundary that won’t be crossed is explaining your position and rationale. Mulvaney says that, according to most research on the topic, most grandparents largely understand that their role is not to circumvent the wishes of the parents.
“I think it’s fair for parents to largely state what they want, and most of the research on grandparenting shows that it works better when grandparents do accede to parents’ wishes, that they’re in the background and able to step in where and when it’s needed, but the impetus is on grandparents to respect parents and what they feel is safe or not safe in terms of their households,” Mulvaney says.
Mulvaney also advocates using “I” statements as often as possible. “I” statements are ways you can communicate your feelings and reasoning in as clear a way as possible, without blaming or creating defensiveness.
“Like with a lot of conflicts, stating your stance firmly but respectfully [is important],” he says. “Really try to emphasise why it’s important to you — ‘I feel like this is important for me and my family’ or ‘I feel this is a really important safety concern;’ those types of things go a long way to winning grandparents over.”
Agree to disagree
There are some issues where little or no common ground will be found. Hot-button political or social justice topics are a good example. Often, the best way to avoid having these values passed on to children is to end conversations and make it clear that certain things are off limits for close relatives to impose on kids.
“Have an agree to disagree basis,” Mulvaney says. “There’s a point where we ignore, then if it got more so, I’d have a talk with the kids afterwards. These issues are deep and hard and systemic and not going to be solved, but it’s also important for kids to have a good relationship with their grandparent. So, change the subject or shift the conversation, then talk afterwards [with the kids].”
Understand when disagreement is healthy
Mulvaney notes that it is important for parents to understand the difference between “disagreement” and “conflict.”
“I think disagreement and divergence of opinion is actually healthy; it’s healthy for kids to see that people have different perspectives and how they resolve those differences,” he says. “Conflict is not healthy, [but] if it’s not conflict, then I think it’s healthy for them to see how you resolve it and manage differences and that people who care about them can have differences of opinion.”
In disagreements between parents and grandparents or other family members, if kids witness and see how those interactions are handled in healthy, positive ways, it is a good teaching moment for them and how to handle similar situations when they’re older.
“If kids are too sheltered from complexities, or things that are hard, it’s not really good for them,” Mulvaney says. “People can still have the same ultimate goal of their well-being but different ways of going about it.”
Having a dysfunctional relationship with your parents — to the degree that you find it necessary to cut off all contact with them — is painful enough. But when you also have kids who are beginning to wonder why grandma hasn’t come to visit in a long time, old wounds...Read more
Consider the ultimate goal
Mulvaney notes that it becomes “a different conversation” if repeated requests to stop crossing a certain boundary go unheeded, but that most conflicts in families where the intentions aren’t malicious don’t rise to that level.
It’s ultimately important that parents remember they have to make the decisions, especially in complex situations, but to also keep in mind that good relationships with loved ones is an important goal for most families. The primary goal, in healthy family dynamics, is to simply ensure that a positive relationship between the child and the grandparent or loved one exists.
“If you really approach them [the relative] and explain your rules, in general they’ll accede to it,” he says. “It becomes a more substantial problem if they’re that resistant, but most situations can be navigated [at least] to a point of ‘agree to disagree and let’s not rehash it in front of the kids.’”