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How to Handle Difficult Grandparents in 4 Easy Steps

I’d like to congratulate those of you with healthy, constructive relationships with your children’s grandparents.


*waiting for those three people to leave*

Now, for the rest of you.  Those who are finding difficult grandparents a bit more… challenging.

First of all, it could be worse. You could be dealing with a grandparent like Robert De Niro. 

Secondly, you’ve got me. Your on-site social worker. Who’s been trained in the art of digging people out of family dysfunctions. 

Step One:
Get a Fresh Perspective

The first thing you need to do in order to build and keep good relationships with your baby’s grandparents, is to gain a fresh perspective. They are not just old people who think they are soooooo much better than you.  (Even if they act like it.)

If you’re not sure what type of grandparent you’re dealing with, check out this Grandparent Guide I wrote for the Fussy Baby Site!

They are normal (sometimes insecure) people who want…

  • to know they are valued
  • to share what they’ve learned along the way
  • to be respected by the children they’ve invested so much into

Sometimes that last one can cause them to do some pretty stupid things.  (I’m sure you can think of a few).

Despite those things, though, they really DO deserve some respect. They’ve actually done this “parenting thing” once before, and regardless on how you feel they did, they did DO it.

You’re alive.

They survived.

That should earn them at least one little gold star sticker. 

So, take a deep breath, acknowledge that they do have positives, and let’s plunge on.

Step Two:
Practice the APCA Approach to Conflict

Now that we have, in your own brain, thrown them a bone and acknowledged they are people looking for affirmation and respect, just like the rest of us, let’s discuss a common issue when it comes to difficult grandparents.

The “I Do It My Way with My Grandkids” problem. Let’s pretend your mother is repeatedly doing something against your wishes. You’ve asked her before not to wake him up for his nap, but let him wake up on his own.  But somehow, your request doesn’t seem to get through.

A “discussion” is going to happen. The confrontation is inevitable. So how do you approach your mother to talk about this without a huge blowout?

Take the APA Approach.  Affirm – Petition – Compromise – Affirm.

Stage One: Affirm

Start by thanking her for all her help and listing an example of how much your son loves her. This starts the conversation on a positive note, and right away helps her understand that you appreciate what she’s done for you.

Mom, thanks so much for watching Tristan while I went to the dentist.  He loves spending time with you, and it’s such a big help to know I can call you.  I’m so lucky to live close by. 

Stage Two: Petition

Share what you’d like her to do (or not do) and how that negatively hurts your baby (not you, her grandchild is the focus here). Offer plenty of information here, so she can see you aren’t just trying to be a bossy parent, but have real reasons why you’re making your request. Reasons that make sense, and have real benefits for everyone.

I know that you really love spending time with him, but can you wait until he wakes up before holding him? If his nap is cut short he gets really fussy  and then struggles to sleep through that night. That throws everyone’s schedule off. 

Stage Three: Compromise (If Necessary)

If you feel her getting defensive, have a backup compromise ready to toss into the ring to show that you are willing to be flexible too. Your ability to bend a little, should show that you’re not digging your heels into a “my way or the highway” approach.  (No one likes a bossypants, even if you have the right to be one.)

I know how much you crave your cuddle time with him, so what if I arrived a little earlier? This way you can have that play time with him, before he gets overtired and cranky. Then you won’t feel like you’re missing valuable grandson-time while he’s sleeping. 

Stage Four: End with Affirmation

Listen to her response, re-emphasizing if you need to how this would serve the baby.  Then follow up with a thank you and another affirmation about how important she is in your baby’s life or include her in an activity.

Thank you so much, Mom!  That will help him so much.  We were going to take a walk this afternoon, would you like to come with us and feed the ducks?

Step Three:
The Gentle Follow-Up Reminder

Okay, so let’s say that conversation goes well, but next week when she comes over to watch him for a couple hours while you do some shopping, you discover she’s done it again.

Enter Affirm – Remind – Petition.

Stage One: Begin with Affirmation

Start by showing your appreciation for her help today, specifically listing why you appreciated it so much.

Thanks Mom for helping me today with Tristan.  Taking him out shopping would have been a nightmare.

Stage Two: A Gentle Reminder

Nonchalantly remind her of what you previously discussed. Don’t jump down her throat, assuming she was just trying to “show you whose boss,” but gently give her an “out” to recall your conversation. (Who knows? Maybe she really did forget!)

We did talk about letting him sleep the entire nap through. Do you remember that? How waking him during the day before he’s ready causes him sleep problems later in the evening? 

Stage Three: Restate Your Request

Circle back and ask again that she not do (or do) what you need.

Okay, well I would REALLY appreciate it next time if you’d let him finish the nap completely.  Even if he makes little noises, can you leave him in there until his eyes are fully opened in the monitor?

Step Four:
The Boundary

So what happens if it happens AGAIN? You’ve now gently made your request known. There’s no way “forgot” was a factor this time around. She has decided to disregard you entirely, and do whatever she feels is best.

It’s time for a boundary.

Just as you must respect her for the hard parenting work she’s done, she must learn to respect YOU and the hard parenting work you’re trying to do.

Stage One: Decide on Your Boundary

Sit down and discuss with your spouse what the boundary needs to look like, and then change your plans, adjust your expectations, and figure out how to prevent this issue from happening again.

I wouldn’t directly communicate your boundary, “Well, we’re not going to let you watch Tristan anymore, because you refuse to follow my requests regarding his naps.” Unless you enjoy conflict in the relationships near to you, and revel in awkward family situations at holidays, avoid going straight for the juggular. That kind of “in your face” communication is lacking grace, and isn’t going to be well-received.  It stirs up a pot of poison that everyone in the family (including yourself) will be forced to drink.

Instead, make your decisions and use someone else as your helper (or don’t use a helper at all).

Thanks Mom for offering, but I really need Tristan to sleep well tonight. So I’m going to run my errands in the morning with him.  (Or I’ve arranged to drop him off at a friends, etc.)

If she asks why she’s not babysitting anymore for these kinds of things, offer a gentle reminder where things landed.  Something kind, but still firm:

It seemed like it was becoming too big of a struggle for you to let him nap without waking him, so we decided we should figure out something else instead for a while, until he gets bigger and doesn’t need that longer nap in the afternoon so much. However, if you want to try again, I’m sure we can work something out!

Stage Two: End with Affirmation

Finish that potentially awkward conversation with a gesture or comment reaffirming she is an important part of your life, and you still want to involve her as a grandparent.

Want me to stop by for a quick visit on my way to Target? Or do you and Dad want to come over for supper tonight?

Wait a few weeks, and then try again to see if she’s re-considered your request.  If not, repeat this step again.

The Nuclear Option

Is there ever a time when you have to pull out the Big Red Nuclear Button of no-contact?

Unfortunately, yes.

When do you choose to use itHopefully never.

Grandparents are important in your baby’s life.  They provide a “this is my generational family and I belong in it” feel that will help her in the teenage years of confusion.

That said, sometimes it’s necessary to pull the plug on bad grandparent influences for your children. You want to break bad cycles. Not repeat them.

People can change, so watch carefully for signs that perhaps the parents you knew aren’t the grandparents your kids know.

Case in point: my grandfather, God rest his soul, was abusive in his younger years. I didn’t learn about that “side” of Grandpa until after he had passed away, and it completely shocked me. I have very fond and gentle memories of my grandfather.  Time (and God) had mellowed him down to a gentle lamb by the time my cousins and I came around. (This doesn’t always happen, but it does occasionally happen!)

Judge these difficult grandparents on the choices they are making NOW before you choose the no-contact nuclear option for your kids.

Once you use that nuclear button, it’s very hard to go back to build those relationships again, so think very carefully before pushing it.

How have you learned to handle confrontations with difficult grandparents? Give me your tips in the comments!

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19 thoughts on “How to Handle Difficult Grandparents in 4 Easy Steps

  1. Hello, my husband’s parents are a little different than most. They both have done drugs their whole life and his father was actually not there when my husband was younger. However, now he is in this picture because he has nowhere else to go so he asked us to move in with us. Four years later, we got him his own place, but he still wants to come over and sleep over every weekend. I honestly wouldn’t mind it, but unfortunately he’s out of his mind, a sexist and talks about beating women in front of our son, and he’s a narcissist who thinks he’s the best person ever and keeps talking about turning my son into him, when in reality he’s nothing but a single alcoholic racist. I keep telling my husband if we should subject our son to his ridiculous ways and my husband keeps asking the question :”what’s better a horrible grandfather or no grandfather at all ” and I feel as if I do not want my child hearing that stuff and want to limit their exposure with each other. Well, my husband feels different and he feels bad for his father because he lives alone and he thinks it’s not a big deal. Help!! What would you do with a grandfather like this?

    1. Caroline,

      I think you need to trust your gut on this. If you don’t feel your son is safe with this man (whether he is related to you or not) then you need to put some boundaries down. Talk to your husband about having him over when you and your son are out or meeting him at a restaurant for dinner. This way your husband will still have the chance to connect with his dad and you won’t have to be concerned about the influence Grandpa is having over your little guy. Hope this helps! (Oh, and the answer is “no grandfather is better than a horrible grandfather”!)

  2. Great article! Thanks for the good advice! Ive been having struggles with my mother in law since our baby was two weeks old, shes 4months now. Everytime she comes for a visit she has to hold her 24/7 and acts like shes the mother to our baby. Sometimes i see this side to her like she feels shes messed up with her kids and wants to do things differently with ours. The real frustration towards her, from me, came about when she was only a few weeks old. Anytime our baby cried she would run from the other room and say i got this. I know she was trying to help, but she wasnt seeing that i am trying to be a mom to my child, i didnt need that kind of help at that time. I felt from the beginning i needed to stand my ground with her – now she tells me i have to many rules. Its just unfortunate as i had a good relationship with her before the baby came. It seems like the nuclear button is more like a bomb – now its hard to be in the same room with her and the baby…

    1. Emmy,

      This is tricky indeed. If possible, it would be good for you to have a talk with her, outside of the moment and the emotional frustration. Let her know how you feel and of course, let her know that you are sure she doesn’t mean to undermine you as the mom. If your baby is her first grandchild your mother-in-law is probably trying to figure out what it means to be a grandma!

  3. What a great article! I find it’s,hard to find good, honest advice about grandparents/in laws. It’s some scary topic everyone is afraid to talk about. Thank you for this!

  4. Hi i just wondered your opinion on letting my five year old son share a bed with a step grandfather. I wasn’t confortable with this so asked my mum if he could sleep with her instead to which she asked both my son and myself to leave and told me she will never have the kids again. I feel she has taken her boyfriends feelings above her own daughter and grandchildren. I have no bond with my mums boyfriend so this seemed alien to me – any advice welcome please

    1. Vicky,

      You did the right thing! If your mom doesn’t respect your boundaries then it really is better that you not leave your 5-year-old with her again. You are your child’s advocate and it’s your job to protect your son and follow your “mama instinct”! Good for you!

    1. Lindsey,
      So glad this article was helpful to you! And I agree, Heather is a genius and a lovely person to call friend also! If you like her writing be sure to subscribe to the Incredible Infant. If you do, you will get an email with each new post. You can subscribe here.

  5. Hi, do you have any advice for dealing with a insecure grandparent?
    My mother in law is not a very “maternal” person and is distancing herself from the baby and avoiding us (though she was quite exited before he was born).
    I think that given time (and baby being a bit less helpless) she will want to spend more time with him, but my husband is really upset about it and is trying to jump on the nuclear button.
    It makes for stressful visits (as she wont stop by to see us) and I think my boy is picking up on it, as he screams his head off every time we drop by, but is normally a happy smiley baby around everyone else, which only makes things worse with her.

    1. Also its been great reading your articles over the last few days 🙂 they’ve been a massive help and they’re easy to read and use!!

    2. Amy, I would be full of compliments for the little things, and then offer explanations for when the baby is unhappy – “very tired…been a long day…lots of errands today…” etc. Reminding her that this kind of behavior is very normal in a baby, as they are used to only seeing you and Dad most the day, but as time goes by he will start to match the role with the face. I’m not sure what you meant by the nuclear button – is he wanting to cut off that relationship? If NOT, and he’s upset she’s not “bonding” to your baby, I would encourage him to be patient with her. She may be terrified of being rejected by her little grandson and just needs more time. Why don’t you invite your MIL to come to your house for short little visits – that won’t overtire your son, but also let him be in his safe environment – in case he is picking up on something. I hope these thoughts can help!

  6. My husband is spoiled to no end. Him and his siblinds have no value on how to do things on their own. Their mother had C-sections (“so I didnt ruin my womanhood”) she hired a nanny right away, never let them learn how to cook or clean for themselves and paid ridiculously large amounts of money on any whim they had.
    Needless to say she doesn’t approve of me in the lest bit. I came from a lower middle class family. My siblings and I have washed our own clothes and learned how to cook at the age of 8. Our parents worked very hard to just buy new shoes each year.
    So when we had children we decided that there was going to be no over indulgence of brand new toys every time we went shopping and that we were their parents not there best bud. Sounds harsh but we are very loving and trying to find our own way if you know what I mean.
    Our eldest son has disabilities. But he communicates in his own way with his hands and a computer board. Every time he spends the day with his grandmother he tells us he didnt take a nap and grandma says he doesnt need to. She gives him way to many sweets and he always wants to know why we havent bought him his own iphone yet like grandma did. Its very frustrating. When we confront t her about it she denies. But we know Trevor doesnt have the mental ability to fib. He doesnt watch tv in our home yet knows all about the Simpson’s and Kim Kardashian (hes only 7 and his mental age the doctors have dubbed to be 5). Im at a loss as what to do. She acts as though we aren’t doing a good enough job and states all the time that they are her precious angels and dont need to be on a schedule. Its hurtful to have someone bash down all your parenting rules and ideas.
    Do you have any recommendations or ideas? I’ll try anything at this point.

    1. Patty, doesn’t sound harsh all to me. Sounds like good parenting. 🙂 It may be necessary to create stronger boundaries, for the sake of your son. I would start with a small request, perhaps having your husband doing the communicating (since you’re the “out”law. Share that you’d like her to (or not to) __________, while sharing things you really appreciate about her and her relationships with her grandkids. Explain why you’re asking this, and then get her verbal agreement on it. Then give it a week or so and see what happens. If she doesn’t follow through I’d encourage your husband to return to her – reiterating the agreement you all had “that _______ was better for Trevor” and that it seems you’re all not on board, since she didn’t do __________. Explain again how this is best for Trevor, and again how much you value her involvement with the kids, how helpful she is, etc. (find a positive…somewhere!). If she fails to follow through a third time, I would encourage you and your husband to have a plan as to how you will respond. Perhaps they only go to her once a week instead of twice, etc. Or perhaps she spends time with them at your house instead of at her house (I’m not sure, it will depend on your specific situation.) Whatever you decide, it shouldn’t be designed as a punishment, because you really have no control over her. It should be designed around what’s best for your child – since that’s something you CAN control. Does that make sense?

      If she responds well to the small request, I would build on that with other requests. Always be clear in your communication and desires. Always give her as much affirmation as you possibly can, while reiterating that you are the parents and the sobering job of “parenting” is under your cap now. She probably won’t ever be “perfect” in regards to what you wish, so I would sit down and identify the 2-3 major things that trouble you most and work on those, letting the other (smaller) things go for the sake of relationship.

      As always, I would run all that I’m suggesting by someone else (a pastor, an older friend, or an aunt/uncle). They know your specific situation and can provide further confirmation on how to proceed.

      I hope that can help Patty! Family situations are always challenging, to say the least. It’s a delicate wire to walk!

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