Arlene Cruz of Milltown, New Jersey, was thankful when her Cuban mother moved in to help when she gave birth to her oldest daughter, Annabelle, two years ago. But it didn't take long before the older woman began calling the shots—and she hasn't stopped since, admits Cruz, also mom to 9-month-old Annelise. "She'll go off on me about not making my own baby food or insist on feeding my younger daughter herself, saying, 'If it weren't for me she would starve to death,'" Cruz says. "It's been a constant struggle."
In fact, it's a struggle shared by many Latina moms living with extended family under one roof. When it comes to their nietos, live-in grandparents often have no qualms about freely expressing their parenting views or even sabotaging house rules they don't agree with, which can lead to frustration and damage relationships unless parents take action quickly.
"Most abuelos believe they are helping," says Ninfa Martinez, a family and marriage therapist in Chicago. But "grandparents are used to having the power in the relationship," she adds. "It's up to the adult children to help them understand that they are not children anymore but parents themselves." With some patience and a few smart strategies, parents can get abuelos to support their child-rearing decisions and get back to enjoying sharing the same house with their favorite people, Martinez says. Here's how:
Have a conversation with the grandparents as soon as you know you're going to be living together, and tell them about your parenting values and rules, Martinez suggests. "You can invite them to give their opinion and weigh in with their experience, but inform them that once the whole family reaches a consensus about how to deal with different situations, everybody will have to follow through," Martinez says. "If you don't have structure, things are not going to go well." Then set up weekly 20-minute meetings to go over any wrinkles. "When things are established and everyone respects one another, you can have the [meetings] once a month."
If you forbid your kids to eat in bed and a grandparent says, 'It's okay, I will clean up after them,' and you do nothing, then it's a very good way to teach the grandparent that they can do whatever they want," Martinez says. Kids may seem to like when grandparents bend or break the rules, but it's especially important for authority figures living in the same household to act in concert. If not, "it affects [childrens'] sense of security and their sense of the world as an orderly place," Martinez says. "Kids need to know that there are established rules, that you have a bed to go to, that there will be food on the table. If you don't have that it creates chaos."
When grandparents overstep their authority, address the situation as soon as possible. Stay calm and avoid conflict but be clear about your expectations, Martinez advises. "Say, 'When you don't respect my [parenting] decisions, I feel like 'this,'" Martinez says. Then be specific about the changes that need to happen. Keeping your cool will likely make Abuela more receptive. "If you accuse—'Why did you do that?' or 'You shouldn't be doing that!'—you're going to get a very different reaction. You want the other person to hear what you have to say."
Appeal to grandparents' own memories of being young parents when trying to help them understand why their interference upset you, Martinez says. "Say, 'Did you ever have that experience when I was a kid and your mother or mother-in-law would tell you that you're doing something wrong? How was it for you? How did you handle it?'" Martinez says. Flashing back to their own parenting experience will help them better understand your position, she adds.
Living with extended family takes getting used to, especially when it comes to having grandparents fall in line with your preferences, Martinez says. "It takes practice, respect, and clear organization"—all things Cruz learned with time. Her relationship with her mother considerably improved once she started to see her more as a partner than an "extra." Now, instead of getting into shouting matches over differences of opinion, Cruz focuses on planning her kids' day with her mom, explaining why she wants meals, naps, and certain activities carried out a certain way. This new approach helped her mom dial down her critiques and see Cruz as a responsible adult.
When grandparents refuse to cooperate, however, it may be time to separate. "In the Latino community, that's extremely hard," Martinez says. "We're not used to telling people to go. We're taught to be very respectful." But it is possible to stick to your guns and still show respect. Just be honest, Martinez advises. "Say, we love you, we want to continue a relationship with you and because of that, we can no longer live together because this arrangement is not working." Offer support in helping them make the move, then stick to your commitment to repair the relationship, she adds.
Sharing the same house with abuelos can enrich children's lives in a way that surpasses the occasional visit. Not only can it teach them to respect and appreciate older generations, Martinez says, but it can also "enhance a kid's sense of belonging, of being an important part of a family." So just remember that all the hard work you put in now in creating a loving family home will be worth it down the road.