Learning Points: Explaining boundaries to grandparents

Richard Hogan suggests how to approach grandparents about boundaries

I’ve always tried to encourage my wife’s parents to be an important part of my children’s lives. But increasingly I’m finding the way they allow my children to eat and do whatever they want when they are at their house harmful to their development.

They are constantly allowing them to break the boundaries we work so hard to set. Just recently my eight-year-old son told me that ‘granddad say’s you’re too strict’ and he told me that when my son told him they were not allowed have chocolate for breakfast he said ‘your dad’s no fun.’ 

This is very undermining and I have to bite my tongue when I see them. This is a source of conflict between my wife and myself, as I find myself taking my frustration and annoyance out on her.

I really need help with this.

It sounds like you are having a difficult time with this issue.

The first thing I would advise is to try and have a boundary around your relationship with your wife. Make sure to keep your feelings for her parents separate from your feelings for her.

I would imagine she is not happy with what is going on too but it is very difficult for her because they are her parents and as you know we can be very loyal and blind to the flaws of our loved ones. So, try not to take your frustrations out on her, you are only damaging yourself in the process.

Often when we feel powerless in a relational dynamic we search for an avenue that is safe to express those feelings, and that seems to be what is happening here but nothing is getting resolved, in fact it’s only making matters worse because now you are annoyed with your wife too. This is not desirable and it’s not her fault.

Grandparents play a very important role in our children’s life. It’s their job, at times, to over indulge their grandchildren.

And this can be a very unique relationship in our children’s life as they come to view the grandparents as special people who allow them extra treats and afford them the opportunity to express themselves differently than they do in the family home.

So this type of over indulgence is very common in families all over the world. But you seem to be describing something else here. It seems to me that there may be an underlining issue here that has not been resolved or spoken about.

What was your relationship like with them before the children arrived? Maybe there is something here that might need addressing; the fact that your father-in-law spoke quite negatively about you may be an indicator that there are some residual issues from your early encounters with them.

That being said, he has no right to disparage you and undermine you to your children and this needs to be looked at. I would suggest doing the following:

  • Organise a meal with them or have them over when the children are not there. This will allow for the adults to have a conversation free from interruption.
  • I would open the conversation by describing how lucky you are to have grandparents who are so interested and attentive to your children. And tell them how much your children love them. It’s often difficult to take a hostile position when you know that someone appreciates what you do. And by outlining that you see what they do makes it more likely that they will not become defensive. Avoid being hostile or accusatory when you calmly outline what your experience has been like and how you have felt undermined.
  • I would ask them for their perspective on it all, be careful not to become defensive if you hear something here that you do not like. You are trying to heal this situation so that it is no longer a source of annoyance. They obviously have their experience of you and it might be incongruent to how you actually are but allow them to express it and if needs be challenge it in a non-confrontational way.So for example, if they say ‘we think you are too strict with the kids’ you could easily become defensive and say something like ‘I’ll rear my kids how I want to’ and that’s the conversation over without resolution. Try instead to say something like ‘parenting has changed since you were parents, and boundaries are very important for the wellbeing of children, so that’s why we want those boundaries in place, and we need your help with them.’ This way you are including them in the parenting of your children and you haven’t taken a defensive position.

There is no doubt about it when you marry someone, you not only take that person into your life, but everyone else who is orbiting his/her world. It is often a difficult relational dynamic to navigate as you are thrown into a lifetime relationship with people that you may not particularly care for or want to be around.

However, managing this is just another facet of adult life and while you cannot control the lives of others you can certainly control how you respond to them.

Having a calm mature adult conversation, without placing blame or accusations, will really help to deescalate this current dynamic.


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