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What to Do When Grandparents Undermine Parents' Authority

Parenting comes with a multitude of struggles and troubles, and sometimes grandma or grandpa can make it to the top of that list. When grandparents refuse to get on board with your rules and boundaries, it can make parenting effectively that much more difficult. Fortunately, there's a good chance that it won't have to come to an all-out war to get them on board and make your life that little bit easier.

Stand United

Identify the issues, discuss them with your partner and prepare to take a stand. Angel Tucker, an expert personality profiler based in Universal City, Texas, and author of the book "Stop Squatting With Your Spurs On! The power to read people, get what you want, and communicate without pain!" says, "It is extremely important to have a united front." Standing together with your partner makes sure your parents are well aware that there is no wiggle room here. It conveys the message that you and your partner are both fully aware of the situation and cannot tolerate it any longer. If your partner isn't aware of the situation that's been taking place, now is the time to get him up to speed and get him on board with halting the undermining behavior. Take some time to talk it out and make sure the two of you are on the same page and that you both want to see the same results come from a discussion with your parents. If the trouble is coming from your in-laws, you may want to let him take the dominant role in addressing the issue to avoid friction if your relationship with them is not the best.

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Keep Calm and Cool

There's no reason to head into a discussion with your parents while you're all heated up. Call ahead and plan a time to get together in a calm and relaxed environment. Have them over to your house while the kids are at the babysitters, or take them out for a casual lunch at a nearby restaurant (as long as you're certain they won't make a scene). Tucker recommends, "First, give the grandparents the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they didn't understand the rules. Have a sit-down together and ask if they understood the rules that you have." She explains that it is important "to take the personality of the grandparents in mind when talking with them." For dominant grandparents, offer some flexibility in areas you are comfortable, such as flexing on bedtime a bit if it’s a weekend. If your parents are generally supportive, it may just take a gentle acknowledgement of how much you appreciate their support of your rules.

Reminders Are OK

It’s time to see just how effective your conversation was now that you’ve talked out the issue. However, some things become habitual after a while, and if your youngster’s grandparents are used to bending the rules, there’s nothing wrong with a few gentle reminders. Parents should anticipate the situations grandparents might undermine and act preemptively, recommends Joani Geltman, a clinical social worker and author of the parenting help book, “I Get It: Three Magic Words for Parents of Teens." For example, if you’ve been uncomfortable with the lavish gifts your parents get the kids for birthdays, remind them of your feelings ahead of time and propose a few appropriate options, Geltman advises. Be sure to convey how much you appreciate their respecting your wishes and they’ll likely feel good about themselves for making your life a little easier.

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Talk Some More

Remember that grandparents are used to the parenting role -- and that’s a hard role to give up. Especially if your child is their first grandchild, they aren’t used to taking a back step and letting you run the show. They may even feel like they’re helping you out -- giving you a break -- by taking over some of the parenting role. It’s common for grandparents to allow their grandkids to do things when they are together that parents do not allow, explains Geltman. This is a likely area for ongoing contention. She emphasizes that “clear communication is key, but empathy is important as well. We understand that you just want Lucy to be happy when she’s with you, but it’s harder to enforce the rules at home afterwards.”

Explain to them that it’s important for your youngster to see that she can’t get around your rules by running to grandma and grandpa. If your child can get away with breaking the rules sometimes, then she’ll feel other times must be okay, too. Geltman recommends that parents try to get grandparents on board by getting them involved. “We’re working hard to be consistent with Lucy and we really need your help.” Talk it out and see if you can come to a mature understanding of the situation together and work out a solution.

When Things Get Heated

Sometimes, grandma and grandpa are well aware of the dominant role they've taken. They may disagree with your parenting style (particularly if it differs from their own) or feel you're not capable of parenting your child adequately. In this situation, they may not back down so easily. They may take offense to your accusation, insist their approach is better or even ignore your concerns entirely.

You can start off by trying to reinforce your message:"This is the way it has to be, whether you like it or not. I feel it's in Isabella's best interest." According to Geltman, “An absolute rule always has to be that grandparents cannot discuss with their grandchildren the way you parent.” She says, “Kids will use that against their parents." For example, “grandma says you’re too strict,” “grandpa says you make me eat too healthy” or “grandma thinks my bedtime is too early.” Geltman recommends parents “sit the kids and the grandparents down together, and explain that the rules at home will be the same as the rules at grandma’s [house].” “This way, neither party can claim ignorance,” she explains.

From here, if they still are not responsive, you're going to have to make some important decisions. If your parents aren't going to acquiesce to your authority over your child, you need to figure out how much involvement you want them to have. You can restrict visits to only when you're around to make sure you maintain authority, or eliminate their involvement if you feel it is warranted in the situation.

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