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Fixing the generational communication crunch

There can be no greater gift than a kind and gentle grandparent. However, it is a reality for many families that parents don’t get along with their own parents, resulting in a considerable amount of cross-generational conflict. How can we avoid conflict with our own parents, to facilitate healthy and positive relationships between grandparents and grandkids, when we don’t always agree on how things can or should be done?

Many grandparents and great-grandparents are from the “Boomer” generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) while many parents are either Gen X (born between 1965-1980) or Millennials (born between 1981 and 1995). Each generation has stereotypes (Boomers may be seen as being too demanding while Xers and Millennials as being too permissive), but ultimately, people are people. You know how we often say to kids, “Would you please get off that device? Kids these days!” I’d be willing to bet that parents, for thousands of years, have been saying the same things about their kids!  We all need to keep in mind that while individuals themselves really have the same basic characteristics, such as a need for acceptance and love, society itself has changed considerably over the past three or four generations. We all end up playing a game of catch-up and sometimes, our experiences do not align with those of the generations that sandwich ours. The conflict between how things used to be and how they are now often results in very different perspectives on child-rearing practices.

To reduce conflict, communication is the key. Communication works best when it is mutually non-judgemental and has clear boundaries. Mutually non-judgemental communication is very challenging. Grandparents do not want to see their adult children make the same mistakes they made in parenting so are often full of advice, which can be very often delivered or perceived as being very judgemental. Once judgment enters the picture, so does defensiveness. This creates ongoing conflict.

Clear, but flexible, boundaries can be a good antidote that allows for better communication. Knowing your place is really hard, especially when we feel that we have something valuable to offer. For instance, eating habits are one of the great areas in which boundaries are often nudged or outright knocked over. If you, as a parent, have strict nutritional guidelines (i.e., “No sugar - at all!”), you can expect that a well-meaning grandparent will stomp all over your boundary to give the child a cookie or two.

To prevent intergenerational conflict and to ensure healthy relationships, the following can be helpful:

For Parents:

  • Be mindful of taking advantage of grandparent care. Many grandparents are kind-hearted, love their grandchildren, and say yes to caring for them, even when they need a break.
  • Establish positive communication. If you have concerns about how grandparents treat the child (i.e., too permissive or too restrictive), let them know - kindly - what your expectations are and how they can help. This provides parents with an ally in their parenting by allowing grandparents to take an active and supportive role, in which there is less room for conflict. 
  • Clear boundaries. if your kids are, for instance, at their grandparents, communicate expectations about meals, routines, bedtimes, screentime, and so on in front of the kids, so that everyone is on the same page.
  • Be patient. your parents may differ in how they see things, but as your allies, they only want the same thing you want – happy children!

For Grandparents:

  • Be mindful of your own boundaries. While it may feel counterintuitive to say no to an opportunity to spend time with your grandchildren, remember that at one point you had to learn how to parent and sometimes, you had to do hard things without someone there to pick you up.
  • Only tell if asked. If your adult children ask for your guidance, you have a bit more leeway in sharing your thoughts and suggestions. If you are not being asked, then tread with caution – you may be one step away from being a ‘well, back in my day’ grandparent!
  • You will be tempted to spoil your grandkids. It’s part of the job description! But again, respect the boundaries established by their parents and communicate clearly ahead of time if there is a spoiling plan coming up!
  • Do not undermine parental authority. If a child misbehaves in your home, avoid the temptation to just let it go (or conversely, to punish perhaps too harshly) – follow the parent’s guidelines instead.
  • If you know that the child’s parents would not approve, then don’t do it. For instance, a gift that they would not approve of should not be given, as it carries a very conflictual and confusing message to the kids and a very clear message to the parents that you don’t respect their parenting abilities.

Follow the basics. Don’t allow for rudeness, be aware of developmental issues in the contemporary world, maintain safety, and, of course, simply be there! That’s perhaps all your children and grandchildren really want from you!


Dr. Brent Macdonald is a frequent guest on CBC, Global Television, Breakfast Television, and CTV. He is currently the lead psychologist with Onward Psychology Group (, which, in addition to providing counselling and assessment services, also provides consultation services to educators and parents.


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