How Do I Set Ground Rules With Overbearing Grandparents?

Boundaries are essential for healthy relationships, but even the most loving grandparents can cross lines. "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says you can communicate your needs as a parent and set limits by sharing how important your parent is to you and your child.

Ask Your Mom Grandma Groundrules
Photo: | Zoe Hansen

Grandma Groundrules

My mother tries to overrule me when it comes to parenting my kids. She even got my toddler son a haircut when I wasn't around. How do I set firmer boundaries with grandma without alienating her?

—Grandma Groundrules

Just like there's no manual for being a parent, there's not one for being a grandparent either. If there were, however, it should definitely have the word "boundaries" in the title! This is where even the most nurturing of grandparents can get hung up, ultimately interfering with what they really want, which is close relationships with their children and grandchildren. Fortunately, you don't have to wait until there's a grandparent manual. There are ways to set boundaries without alienating, but instead by putting your relationship front and center.

Transition Tension

As I become the parent of a young teen, I have glimpsed why adult children can still act like, well, children, when with their parents. I find myself reminding and "helpfully" advising my daughter, even when she doesn't need it anymore (as she clearly communicates: "mom leave me be!"). With all three of my children, I resist automatic impulses from years of parenting young children, like reaching to open tight drink lids, or moving a precarious glass from the edge of the table, when they can do those things just fine without me.

I can see how the impulse to do more than your child needs could carry into their adulthood and start to affect the grandparent role. I can't imagine my children caring for children of their own, and I wonder if there's an unspoken struggle for grandparents adjusting to their own child taking on this huge role shift. If your adult child has their own child, maybe it feels like they don't need a parent anymore. Overhelping with the grandchildren may be a way to reclaim their lost parenting identity.

But the Boundaries...

Those are just guesses for why boundary issues seem to be so common, but it doesn't mean we should accept them as inevitable. Boundary problems can erode relationships with unspoken resentments that simmer and heat up over time to eventually boil over in regrettable ways, like big fights and hurt feelings. Healthy relationships of all types thrive with clear boundaries, so it's worth the time and effort, and sometimes pain, of setting limits, just like we do with our children.

One clear boundary to enforce, as illustrated by your dilemma: the parent is the ultimate authority figure for the child, the grandparent is not. The grandparent is welcome to back up and reinforce the parent's rules and regulations, or stay quiet, but not to change or remove these rules. Not following this authority boundary causes confusion for children who need clarity and consistency, and obviously causes tension between parent and grandparent that trickles down to the child. Of course, there are ways that grandparents bend the rules (like extra dessert or TV time) that make time with them fun and special, so it's important for parents to prioritize which rules are untouchable. (In my family, nobody messed with bedtimes!)

Relationship First

In our most important relationships, the connection between us serves as the foundation for solving problems. To invest in the connection, bring up the problem with curiosity instead of accusations or criticism, and then add empathy and perspective-taking.

For example, to address taking your son for a haircut without clearing it with you: "So, tell me how the haircut came about. How did you decide to do that?" Depending on grandma's answer, do your best to quiet the arguing voice in your head, and dig for the empathy: "It sounds like you thought it would be helpful to get it done, and you like feeling involved." The goal is for grandma to feel understood before hearing your perspective because it's more likely she will actually listen (same with kids and partners!).

After empathizing with why she made a decision that upset you, you can shift into expressing your perspective and reasoning: "As I'm learning to be a parent, and you may have different ideas, it's most supportive to me if you respect that I'm the one to make these decisions." When it comes to the larger issue you mention around your mother overruling you, you can be clear about your expectations, and why you have these expectations: "My child needs to see me as the one in charge. When you change the rules I set, it makes it harder for me the next time I lay down the law, and it's confusing for him. I need you to back me up."

Finding the Why for Change

You're not just asking your mother to change, you're doing it because of what you value: having a supportive and involved mother and grandmother. When she crosses boundaries, it interferes with this value because it undermines instead of supports you. You can connect these dots with her too, asking "what kind of grandmother do you want to be?" and "what do you see as supportive for me?" She might see getting your son a haircut as a way to take something off your to-do list when you see it as overstepping. Clarifying these differences might even help you find common ground, like maybe you are in charge of haircuts but there are other tasks from your to-do list you would happily give up!

Having one conversation about boundaries won't solve the problem forever. What it does, however, is lay the groundwork for the next time a boundary is crossed or even butted up against. Instead of seeing each boundary violation as evidence your mother isn't listening, view it as an opportunity to practice problem-solving. The more often you can put the topic out there, the more comfortable you both get talking about it.

The Bottom Line

The overzealous grandparent often has the most loving intentions if we can get past some of our own feelings! I understand that a parenting column cannot address the complexity of any family relationship, let alone between a mother and her mother. There may be deeper issues underlying the boundary-crossing dynamics, but addressing these boundaries with the goal of staying close and connected is a good start. Then maybe we can write that manual on how to be the most helpful grandparent with the subtitle, "Respect Boundaries."

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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