A sage grandparent can be just the emergency rescue you need in your back pocket.
Or grandparents can serially throw a wrench in your parenting style. If that just described your predicament, know the problem doesn’t only exist within your family:
Of more than 2,000 parents polled in a recent survey, nearly 45% reported butting heads with grandparents about their parenting choices, according to a report published Monday by The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health by Michigan Medicine.
“It’s kind of a universal experience,” said poll co-director Sarah Clark, a research scientist in the department of pediatrics at the University of Michigan.
The disagreements were classic: 40% of parents thought the grandparents were too lenient on their grandchildren while 14% said grandparents were too tough. The most common areas of conflict were discipline (57%), food (44%) and television and screen time (36%).
“A loving and involved grandparent” can be good for the children’s social and cognitive skills, identity, self-esteem and knowledge of family history, said Coleman, who also a senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families. He wasn’t involved in the study.
Grandparents could also bring to a child’s life attributes that their parents might not be able to, intervene in unhealthy dynamics and suggest an “attitude toward the grandchild that might be more loving, compassionate and forgiving,” he added.
“For the grandparent, it’s a deeply powerful source of meaning and pleasure,” he said. “The relationship between a grandparent and grandchild is one of a shared vulnerability and a kind of innocence.”
Nonetheless, conflict can arise when a grandparent has different ideas than you about the best way to raise children. During the pandemic, conflicts might have worsened due to stress — especially if you live in a multigenerational household. If tension festers, a few strategies could help to restore the peace.
Parents and grandparents should assume good intentions of the other’s behavior and try to understand their motivations, Coleman recommended.
Grandparents may try to compensate for their perceived or actual shortcomings as parents. They might correct you if they’re frustrated by you unknowingly repeating their mistakes.
The older generation also may have lived in a different time when booster seats weren’t required by law, when there were no organic baby food labels and when smart devices didn’t exist.
Parents are anxious and feeling guilty because they’re raising children in a world uncertain in terms of economics, climate change and politics, Coleman said. And parenting advice is ever changing, “with no shortage of articles on any given day or newscasts that tell you all the things that you could do wrong as a parent.”
Higher standards can make parents appear more controlling, and the generational tension can create a breeding ground for conflict.
Focus on the important things
Figure out which issues are deal breakers that require cohesiveness, Clark said.
That your children sit in booster seats on car rides and stop eating sugar by 3 p.m. are of utmost importance — they could otherwise get hurt or experience negative behavioral changes from processed food. “Try to get the grandparents to understand (why) these are things we really have to do,” Clark said.
Parents should learn to “back off a little bit” on less important matters, Clark added. “It’s good to let grandparents be grandparents.”
That your kids stay up later when their grandparents watch them isn’t a big deal, Clark said. Discipline isn’t either, if the disagreement is over your mother not using the timeout chair exactly as you do. Spanking, on the other hand, might be a deal breaker.
Educate and set boundaries
Conversations to handle these problems are best had when they arise and “when people are calm and in a good place,” Coleman said. Start by sharing the positives the grandparents contribute. The most challenging disagreements can arise from situations that grandparents didn’t have to deal with.
If grandparents feel that your teens’ texting is disrespectful, explain that smartphones are largely how kids communicate. Your kids could also put away their phones when they’re around their grandparents.
Some parents reported tension over grandparents sharing photos of and information about the children on social media.
“Grandparents may not appreciate the privacy considerations that often inform decisions about what and where to post on a public forum, and should talk with parents about their views on including children in social media posts,” the report said.
Close by asking grandparents to abide by your ideas even if they don’t understand or agree.
Let your partner handle your in-laws
Conflict management is better attempted by the biologically or closer related parent, Coleman said.
An in-law intervening doesn’t usually go as well, he added, because the grandparents could resent your intervention or rightly or wrongly assume that the other parent doesn’t agree with you. They could try to circumvent your authority.
Grandparents also would have the most to lose — not seeing their adult children and their grandchildren — if their own child withdraws from the relationship because they’re not respected.
What to do when all else fails
Four in 10 parents had asked a grandparent to change their behavior. For those who were slow to or ultimately refused to adapt, the disagreements only escalated.
If your parents are slow to adjust, know that even when making an effort, “it’s easy to fall back on your old habits, particularly when it’s things with kids where you’re not really even conscious of what you’re doing,” Clark said.
Ask your parents what their reasons were for behaving the same way. If they don’t change, you get the final vote, Coleman said — which can sometimes be estrangement if the conflict climaxes instead of reaching equilibrium. The percentage of parents who limited the amount of time their child saw some grandparents increased in accordance with grandparents’ refusal to bend.
Parents and grandparents should try their best to work things out, because severing the relationship can be harmful for everyone in terms of feelings of anxiety, loss and stress, Coleman said. How the child makes sense of the separation can be challenging as well.
If estrangement is necessary, help your child process it by emphasizing that the shift is because their grandparents aren’t respecting your ideas about how you raise her. Tell your kids it doesn’t have to be forever, and don’t vilify them.
“The love that the grandchild has for the grandparents is a part of them,” Coleman said. “And you don’t want to taint that with your own issues around the grandparent’s behavior. Parents have a responsibility to walk that line pretty carefully.”