Do you feel frustrated because the boundaries between parent and grandparent is frequently crossed? Are you unsure on how to set healthy boundaries and enforce them with the grandparents? To help learn how to prevent the grandparents from crossing over those boundaries and what you can do if the grandparents don’t listen, I have interviewed therapist Dr. Jaelline Jaffe.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I’m Dr. Jaelline Jaffe. I’m a Los Angeles area psychotherapist, with a doctoral degree in Counseling Psychology from USC. My practice is in Sherman Oaks, and on the internet at www.LemonAidCounseling.com. I’m co-author of The Language of Emotional Intelligence and The Heroic Journey: A Rite of Passage Program for Adolescents. I’ve worked with family relationships since 1976, when I became licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist. I was an elementary school teacher for 10 years, as well as a school counselor at all levels for almost 20 years. I grew up with four grandparents and a great-grandmother around (they all lived into their 90s, and one was past 100). My own mother (my daughter’s grandmother) is now 90. I am blessed to be Gaga (Grandma) to twin 4-year olds, a boy and a girl.”
What are common boundaries that grandparents typically step over?
“First I am compelled to comment on these questions as a whole. Every one of them comes from the perspective of grandparents as intrusive, interfering, and inappropriate in their observance of boundaries. In fact, there are many, many grandparents whose participation in their grandchildren’s lives are invited, welcomed, and appreciated. Young couples often turn to their parents for help with infants and young children. Some family units share housing or live in the same community, where the grandparents can readily babysit, make dinner, pick up children from school, drive them to activities, or keep them overnight. In some cases, there are cultural aspects, a long-standing tradition of families living together with the grandmother as head of household. Grandchildren often relate more closely to grandparents than to parents, and in their school-age or teen years, may enjoy hearing stories of the “old days.” Some grandparents are able to help grandchildren develop hobbies or skills that busy parents cannot take time to do. And all-too-many grandparents now are in the fulltime role of parent, because their own child for one reason or another could not manage.”
“That being said, grandparents are from an earlier generation, one in which family time was probably quite different, with less scheduled activities and no internet or other electronic devices. Their ideas about dinnertime, bedtime, playtime, and teenage activities are likely to conflict with those of the parents. Grandparents who do step over boundaries are most likely to do so by offering unsolicited parenting advice, criticizing parenting or disciplinary style (even in front of the grandchildren), making unannounced visits, or following their own views instead of the parents’ rules (for food, bedtime, routines, play activities, etc). If they have a key to the house, some may even come in when the family is gone, and nose around in the parents’ or kids’ things. If they buy expensive gifts for the grandchildren or help the parents with bills, they may assume an attitude of entitlement to being in the parental role with the grandchildren.”
What type of impact does crossing over those boundaries have on the grandparent and parent relationship?
“The disrespect implied by ignoring or overriding the parent creates resentment, frustration, blame between the parents, anger, and potentially a rift between generations. In families with poor impulse control, this can even lead to violence or cut-off of the children from their grandparents. If the children are aware of the disagreements ‘” particularly if they hear parents and grandparents arguing about the issue ‘” they can become disrespectful themselves, or manipulative of the adults. Grandparents who enter a house without permission generate distrust, making it even more difficult for the parents to be interested in listening to their advice. Adult children who rely on their own parents for financial assistance may have a harder time maintaining their authority and autonomy.”
What can a couple do to prevent the grandparent from stepping over their boundaries?
“Good relationships involve respect and clear communication. Remember that there are many different ways to do things out there in the world, so if the grandparent’s actions are not dangerous or far out of line, see if you can be a little flexible: ‘These are the house rules, and we ‘” the parents ‘” are the main disciplinarians. We know that grandparents sometimes spoil the kids, and if they are with you, there will be some things done differently. However, at the minimum, please no sugar (or whatever your most critical rules might be).'”
“Do your best to include grandparents in certain activities, so they do not feel the need to push their way into their grandchildren’s lives. Be respectful and appreciative of their good intentions to be involved, while being firm and clear about the boundaries: ‘We know you love the kids and you want the best for them, and we’re glad you are a part of their lives. At the same time, we have certain rules for them, and we expect them to follow those rules. Please do not undermine our parenting by breaking those rules. If you have another point of view, discuss with us away from the kids.'”
What can a couple do if the grandparent doesn’t listen and is still crossing over the boundaries?
“If you were dealing with the children breaking rules, you would probably give them a clear statement about your expectations and about the consequences of their continued negative behavior. You can do the same with grandparents: “We have asked you several times to call before coming over; yet you continue to drop by without considering our schedule or our needs. We feel that is disrespectful. The next time you come by unexpectedly, we may need to refuse your entry. That is not what any of us want ‘” we do want you to visit ‘” but we now insist that you respect our request to call and ask first.” If grandparents are violating privacy by entering the house without permission and you have clearly stated that they may not do so, consider changing the locks. Note that, just as with children, you should say what you mean and mean what you say. If you take this kind of stand, be prepared to hold the line calmly, even in the face of the negative response you are certain to generate.”
“Parents need to be a united front in dealing with difficult grandparents (who are, after all, the parents of one or the other of them). Their own disagreements about child-raising should be discussed separately, and not brought in as another issue with the grandparents. Additionally, if at all possible, do not take money from grandparents for basic household expenses. That only maintains the impression ‘” and reality ‘” that you are not yet fully responsible for your family.”
What last advice do you have for a couple that is trying to set grandparent boundaries?
“Be a good role model for your children: avoid having a big argument with grandparents in their presence. If you cannot resolve these issues in a productive way, seek the help of a qualified family therapist. They are trained to facilitate communication among family members, and will provide a calm and more balanced outside ear. You can find referrals on a number of therapists search websites, such as AAMFT, CAMFT, or Psychology Today. A professional can also advice you regarding assistance if a family member is mentally ill, alcoholic, drug addicted, abusive or dangerous to your children.”
Thank you Dr. Jaffe for the interview how to set grandparent boundaries. If you would like more information on Dr. Jaffe you can check out her website on www.LemonAidCounseling.com.
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