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Forming healthy boundaries with the grandparents

We all know there are countless benefits to children having a healthy relationship with their grandparents, but some aspects of that relationship can cause a bit of strife between mom and dad and grandma and grandpa.

It is no surprise that when kids are with their grandparents they are much more likely to get what they ask for (the word “spoiled” is often used). This can be a good thing, as kids feel special, but it can also step on parents’ toes and strain that relationship if it goes too far.

How do you make sure your parents (and/or in-laws) are not undermining your authority?

According to Chantal Côté, registered psychologist and founder of Pyramid Psychology, you set up boundaries. It is “OK to [set boundaries] and it is possible to do so in a respectful way,” she says. “Keep [your] children's best interest and well-being at the heart of decisions.”

  1. Too much of a good thing. Grandparents have earned a right to somewhat spoil their grandchildren by taking on the difficult task of raising us and helping us become the people we are today. They deserve to give their grandchildren what they want from time to time! However, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. It is a good idea to have a quick chat with your parents and set out boundaries related to the things they purchase for your kids. Each family’s ‘rules’ will look a bit different and can range from the elders asking the parents if it is OK each time a child asks for something, to setting a price limit or set number of ‘things’ or ‘treats.’
  2. Undermining parents’ authority. It is a good idea to have a chat with your parents about any major rules in your home, such as limits on screen time and strict nap times.

“Have conversations with grandparents about most important non-negotiables when it comes to times together with grandparents and children,” says  Chantal. Stick to your guns and make sure they know that other rules are fluid, but these must be followed in order for them to spend time with your children.

“Be okay with ‘no,’” says  Chantal. “Set up requests and invitations for spending time together with the understanding that if it doesn't fit for the other person, that is okay. Parents have boundaries, as do grandparents, as do children. Keeping that in mind can help everyone have their voice heard in a more equitable way.”

  1. Talk about the differences. Make sure both your children and your parents know that the care and interactions will be different with grandma and grandpa than they are at home. Talk to your kids about what rules will be different (for example, your bedtime may be a little later or you may not have to finish everything on your plate before dessert) and what will stay the same (screen time limits and no phone in your room at night).
  2. In my day. Because your parents raised you, they may have their own opinions about how you should raise your children. We all know that parenting has changed a lot in the past 20 to 30 years, and what may have been right or acceptable then is not how things are currently done. It is important that you talk about this and ask them to respect that you have done your research and are parenting with your child’s best interests in mind.
  3. Be flexible when you can. Although there are times when you will have to “put your foot down,” there are other times when it is okay to let things go. The incredibly beneficial bond between grandparents and children, and the much-needed parenting break it can give you, are worth letting go of a bit of control.

The key to feeling good about letting go is open and honest communication, according to  Chantal. “Listen to understand - if something is bothering you in grandparent/child time together, pay attention (there's a reason) and see if you can bring a little curiosity to understand why your parent/child is behaving in that way,” she adds.

“If something is working really well, keep it going. If something isn't, don’t be afraid to think outside the box of what the relationship can look like.” 

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