6 Challenging Grandparent Styles and How to Set Boundaries

If you're struggling with the grandparent-child relationship, take some advice from our experts—as well as from fellow parents who’ve been there.

Once upon a time, there was a mom—let's call her Mary—who took her mop-topped son to stay with her parents while she and her husband went on vacation. On her return to grandma and grandpa's, Mary found her son's hair closely cropped. "He just looked messy," her mother said. Mary said nothing—but seethed for years afterward.

kids grandma reading baking grandparent
National Grandparents Day is September 12 this year. Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Look, it's no secret that there can be challenging circumstances between grandparent relationships, but there are ways to navigate even the most challenging of grandparent styles. And there are good reasons to do so: the support grandparents provide, both emotional and practical; the ways they connect you and your kids to your family's history; and the service you do your child by fostering a relationship with their grandparents. Research has proven that grandparents have a positive effect in children's lives, from both providing emotional support to being a playmate in ways parents often don't have time for.

Despite the possible benefits, not every grandparent-grandchild or even grandparent-child relationship will be perfect. And even if we adore them and know they love us and our children, our parents and in-laws will eventually annoy us. It's human nature: People bug each other.

Jill Spiegel, author of How to Talk to Anybody About Anything, says: "All relationships have the potential for both love and conflict. They're here to help us grow." When emotions run high, as they tend to between parents, kids, and grandkids, those tiffs are amplified, says Amita K. Patel, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in New York City. "When kids come into the picture, it's a big role change not only for new parents but for new grandparents as well," she adds. "They may see that their view of themselves as parenting experts may not be universally accepted by their children."

To help make the most of this crucial relationship, we asked experts and seasoned parents to identify six common grandparent behaviors that wear on families, and to offer loving strategies for working through them.

1. The Line Crosser

This style may be the most frequent complaint parents levy against their parents or in-laws—that they assert their opinion when it hasn't been solicited, come around too much, or even seem to covet the primary position in their child's life. Take it from a mom who asked that her location not be named: "My husband and I recently found a perfect daycare, and my mother-in-law lost her mind because we didn't get her opinion first."

How to deal:

Spiegel says that "disagreements develop when a grandparent feels, incorrectly, that they have ownership of the situation. "It makes sense: For years, they were responsible for your well-being, and realizing they are no longer your decision maker can be difficult. Says Bethany Cook, Psy.D., a family systems–oriented therapist in Chicago, "Even when you're grown up, the same dynamics you've had with your parents all your life tend to continue. If they were overbearing parents, they will likely be overbearing grandparents."

You may be able to quell the overstepping by including the grandparent in ways that feel comfortable. "If they're calling constantly or barging in, try thinking, 'She wants to feel that we love her and that she's a participant in our lives,'" Spiegel suggests. "You can say, 'It makes us feel good that you're thinking of us. We're not available to answer the phone all the time, so let's set a time to talk.'" However you address the problem, a boundary must be drawn. "A kid needs to know who is in charge in order to feel safe," Dr. Cook says. "If they're getting one message from Mom and a different one from Grandma, it can be not just confusing but destabilizing."

2. The Snide Sniper

The idea that if one has nothing nice to say, they shouldn't say anything? These folks never got the memo. Their barbs (micro-insults, sour comments) can induce resentment, rage, and exhaustion—being constantly criticized takes a toll. In some cases, the wounds are literal: Says a mom in Portland, Oregon, whose in-laws visited just after she gave birth, "My mother-in-law chastised me for not covering up while breastfeeding in my own house, then suggested a walk outside. She complained that I was moving too slow, so I walked faster and ripped open my vaginal stitches."

How to deal:

It's likely that your critical parent or in-law isn't cruel so much as clueless, Spiegel says; most prod from a place of love. Says an Omaha mom, "My mother-in-law sneered at our daughter's name because it was 'hard to pronounce.' For the record, the name is Felicity." But maybe the mother-in-law worries people will find the name too unusual, and the child will be teased. That doesn't excuse the behavior but may explain it. "This often happens when a grandparent has a beef with your choices but lacks the self-esteem to say so," says Dr. Cook. "It may be a way of registering contempt without the risk of being direct."

Patel suggests asking the parent to speak plainly. "When you're hit with a passive-aggressive jab, respond with, 'Can you clarify what you're trying to say?' This may create space for them to feel safe talking to you." And take a moment to ask yourself: "Is this actually an insult, or does it just bug me because it's my parent saying it?" Or, as Patel says, "Remember, assumptions rarely repair. They only further what's not working."

3. The Scorekeeper

For some, comparing their share to others' is an obsession. When what's perceived to be at stake is a grandchild's love, the tally keeper's efforts can escalate. One Queens, New York, mom says, "Because we only saw family outdoors then, last fall we suggested to my in-laws that we have a backyard Thanksgiving meal the Saturday before the holiday since the weather would be nice. My mother-in-law assumed it was that day because we were seeing my parents for the 'real' holiday—we weren't—and launched into an itemized list of 16-plus years' worth of times she felt we'd chosen my parents over her. Her tally was way off."

How to deal:

Try to show the "cheated" person all the ways they're winning, Spiegel says. "This is about insecurity. So focus on their starring role in the child's life: 'You're the only ones who've taken her apple picking, and she loved it!' Help them feel they're uniquely loved. You can also have all the grandparents for dinner; it's harder to compete with someone if you see that you're all on the same team."

The key is to consider the feelings at play and speak to them, Patel says. "I'd advise parents to ask themselves, 'Am I fighting to fix this or to win?' If you're trying to prove their count is off or that they don't get to dictate who you see, step back and let your emotional temperature decrease. Then let them express their feelings, and tell them they're valued family members. That's what they're longing to hear." Dr. Cook agrees: "Often, what they really want isn't for things to be 'equal' but to have more of something they feel they're missing out on. So ask them: 'Is it more sleepovers you want? More FaceTime chats?' Try to get to the root of what's really troubling them."

deck water grandparents grandpa
Lucy Schaeffer

4. The Questionable Advice Giver

Parents love, even live, to give their kids advice. A reminder to floss is fine, but if the tips border on the bizarre or even the potentially harmful ("Boys can't wear purple!" "Feed her rice cereal or she'll never sleep at night!") and are offered too insistently, taking them with a grain of salt can be tough.

How to deal:

"You can say, 'I'm going to make a mental note on that,'" Spiegel says. "Validating them goes a long way." If the input feels like an insinuation of your incompetence, you could say, "It would mean a lot if you could let us know that you believe in us." The hope is that they'll hear this and grasp that they've been giving this advice without realizing how it sounded, Spiegel says.

And if they don't respect your parenting? Then, says Patel, "it's time to set a boundary. Express your feelings without accusing: 'When you question how I do this, I feel frustrated' is more effective than 'Ugh, you're so out of touch.'" Dr. Cook says that for some grandparents, your disagreeing with them about how to parent can feel like a personal affront, "like you're tacitly criticizing what they did as parents. Speaking to that can help. You might say, 'I'm taking what you did and building on it. It's not about you; I'm just trying to do a good job as a parent.'"

Meanwhile, a Los Angeles mom found her own solution. "Whenever my toddler cries or whines on FaceTime," she says, "my mother goes into her One True Way to quiet babies and toddlers, which is to mimic them. She'll pretend to cry back at my son: 'Waaah waaah waaah, I want to climb on the table!' It drives me up the wall. So now I mute her and do my own parenting while she has a fake tantrum."

5. The Hazard

Whether they're distractible, a tad too rough, or rusty on the ways of littles, some grandparents are just not great at caring for young kids. Another mom in Los Angeles says, "When our son was born, my mom visited and nearly burned our place down by putting damp towels in the oven to dry them. When he was a year old, we all went on a trip. As my husband and I packed, she babysat. She wandered off, and our son crawled to the edge of the stairs and almost went over."

How to deal:

Dr. Cook doesn't mince words: "You're not obligated to have your kids around dangerous people, regardless of their title." If you're dealing with, say, a grandpa who roughhouses too vigorously for your liking, Spiegel also advises disengagement, even if just temporarily. "You might say,' Ava loves it when you visit, but I'm concerned about the wrestling, so I'd love it if you could leave that out.' If they resist, you can say, 'Well, I appreciate that it works for you, but it doesn't work for me. So let's take a month off, and we can think on it and see if we can compromise.'"

grandparents kitchen baking grandma
Let the two of them spend some time alone together. Lucy Schaeffer

5. The Absentee Ancestor

The above examples share a theme: involvement. (Too much, in some cases.) But some grandparents don't center their grandkids in their lives the way you might hope for or expect. One Brooklyn, New York, mom says, "My dad hasn't met my 1-year-old daughter, though he lives an hour away—he's wrapped up in his own life and doesn't seem interested, and it makes me sad." That's an extreme example; more common is a grandparent ensconced in a life of travel, socializing, and quiet time, who loves their grandkid but doesn't live to dote on them.

How to deal:

Examine your expectations. Are you mistaking their independent life for indifference to your child? Remember that your parents did their child rearing already and may not be keen on a repeat performance. It can be a tough pill to swallow when you see other grandmas sitting front row at the dance recital, but you may need to shift your perspective. Says Dr. Cook, "We tend to think of grandparents as soft, cuddly, making cookies. But they're just people. We ask for trouble when we project impossible things onto them."

What's the best way to find out how your parents or in-laws feel about this whole grandparent thing? Talk to them about how they envision the relationship unfolding, Patel says. "Ask what would help them feel fulfilled by the connection but would also allow them to live their own lives." You may not get the answer you want, but at least the truth will be out in the open. "For some, being heavily involved with grandkids just isn't their thing," Spiegel says. "You can let your kid know it's not a reflection on them: 'I know she loves you, and we'll give her a call now and then.'"

And remember, Dr. Cook says, there are willing replacements out there. "If you're open to it, I guarantee there is someone terrific in your area who wishes they were closer to their own grandkids and would love to love on your kids."

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