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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.

*clapping*

*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. 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. 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?

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