3 Tips for Setting Boundaries with Grandparents

A grandfather is sitting down in a chair with his eyes closed and smiling. There is a young girl on each side of him kissing his cheeks.

As new parents, we’re all trying to master our roles as moms and dads. What many of us don’t realize might be part of that process, however, is creating a list of rules for grandparents to monitor their involvement in our children’s lives.

Whether it’s your parents or in-laws, it’s not uncommon for them to spoil your little ones and give in to their every whim, whether it goes against the parents’ wishes or not. 

Don’t get me wrong, most of us want nothing more than for our kids to have a close bond with their grandmothers and grandfathers, but sometimes lines have to be drawn.

So, how do you create healthy boundaries between older generations and new mothers and fathers? You can take several steps to encourage healthy relationships between you, your children, and your parents.

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The Push and Pull Between Parents and Grandparents

Recently, I told my daughters they couldn’t have a cookie. It was right before dinner, and I was working hard to prepare a healthy meal for our family to enjoy.

How did they react? Not well.

Amidst their toddler-level tantrums, they received a Facetime call from their grandma. I answered the call, expecting assurance that my children were acting like wild animals.

What I got instead didn’t please me.

Grandma said: “Oh, mom, just let them have the cookie.”

I was less than thrilled.

Here I was, trying to make good decisions for my kids, and grandma stepped in to be the hero and negate what I had just said.

Moments like these make many of us feel it might be time to set up some rules for grandparents.

Ogden Nash once said, “When grandparents enter the door, discipline flies out the window.”

Well, thank you, Mr. Nash, for that little piece of greeting card-esque wisdom, but I’m going to have to politely disagree with your logic.

Our society has developed this idea that grandparent involvement in our children’s lives is a free-for-all.

There are never enough cookies, late nights, and stern looks at parents attempting to do the most ghastly of all ghastly things…tell their children “no.”

Parenting is hard enough without having someone hanging over your shoulder, undoing the discipline and rules you are trying to set for your family. It’s time for parents to reclaim our control over raising our kids and lay down some ground rules for grandparents that will help us ALL in the long run.

Don’t Forget the Benefits of Grandparents Along the Way

Before diving into the nitty gritty of balancing the parent/grandparent relationship, it’s essential to understand that while our parents can seem exhausting, they can bring so much positivity to our lives. 

When I walk into my mother’s house, and she starts nagging me about my child’s hair not being brushed enough or that I won’t let them have their 10th piece of candy for the day, I sometimes feel like screaming and walking right back out the door.

Before it gets to that point, I must take a deep breath and recognize how lucky I truly am.

Do grandparents drive us crazy? Sometimes.

Do grandparents sometimes make us feel bad about our parenting decisions? Occasionally.

Do grandparents love our children more than anyone can possibly understand? My parents certainly do!

In many scenarios of toxic grandparents and overbearing relationships, it’s essential to remember these frustrating actions often come from a place of love. 

If you want to change the relationship between yourself and your parents, understand that setting boundaries can make a difference.

Setting up fair rules for grandparents will convey your expectations and explain why you do and don’t want certain things for your children. The last thing any parent wants is to prevent their child from building a lasting relationship with their grandma or grandpa.

Avoiding Resentment and Trauma: Why Setting Boundaries with Grandparents is so important

On any given day, parents face hundreds of seemingly insignificant choices we must make for our children.

While these might not matter much in the long run, decisions about bedtimes, what food to eat, how to get a new baby to sleep, and discipline techniques we choose to benefit the family dynamics we’re hoping to create.

After establishing these parental guidelines, it’s our duty to enforce them with our children for the sake of family relationships.

When a grandparent goes against the rules without permission from the primary caregivers, all of our hard work can become moot. Our children may lose trust in our ability to follow through with routines and boundaries. 

This can quickly become a toxic relationship between grandparents and their adult child.

What are Toxic Grandparents?

There’s no denying that grandparents are wonderful people we love and often depend on. That said, however, there’s a thin line between what’s helpful and what’s stepping over the line.

In most circumstances, our parents might only need a gentle reminder that they had their chance to raise children, and now it’s time to take the back seat. 

For other individuals, the situation can become more severe.

Grandparents who generally lack respect or care for their grandchildren’s parents and parenting practices are often classified as toxic grandparents.

Of course, there is a range of how toxic grandparents can be. Some might offer unsolicited advice more frequently than you would like. In contrast, others could be perpetrators of emotional abuse and can cause severe issues with mental health for parents and children.

Are you trying to figure out the difference between a grandparent blurring the lines and someone taking things too far?

Consider these six signs you could be dealing with toxic grandparents:

  • A grandparent who continually “plays favorites” among their grandchildren and dotes on one or multiple more than others.
  • Someone who is too critical or judgmental when speaking to a grandchild.
  • A grandparent who feels entitled to meddle in all of your parenting choices.
  • An individual who uses guilt trip tactics to get their way with a grandchild.
  • Someone who acts like they never made any mistakes as a parent themselves.
  • A grandparent who acts entitled to as much time with their grandchildren as they’d like.

While many grandparents might be guilty of actions like these from time to time, a constant reoccurrence of them is an indicator that there might be a bigger problem.

What Can Happen Because of Toxic Relationships?

When we avoid toxic relationships instead of handling them, it can end up causing irrevocable emotional damage. It’s not unusual for issues like grandparent estrangement to pop up. Problems like these not only fray the dynamics between parents and grandparents but can also negatively affect children.

A grandmother and grandfather are sitting on a couch. Their granddaughter is sitting in the grandfather's lap and the grandmother is helping her open a present.
Is your child’s grandparent overstepping? It’s time to make some rules and create healthy boundaries for grandmas and grandpas.

List of Boundaries for Grandparents: Things to consider

Before drawing the line and taking your children away from their grandparents, why not set up some guidelines to hopefully improve the relationships? Not sure where to start? Here are a few questions you should think about. 

1. Is Your Child’s Grandparent Respecting You?

L. Jane Tanner, M.D., a professor at the University of California-San Francisco, explains that “the grandparent’s role is not to challenge, but to fit in with the family culture” (Stanford Children’s Health).

This means that a grandparent should positively engage with a parent’s rules and responsibilities for their children rather than going against them. Unfortunately, general disrespect for these things is not uncommon. 

If a grandparent takes anything away from this article, let it be this – the best thing you can do for your familial relationships is to respect a parent’s wishes for their child. No matter how silly something might seem, like giving kids extra snacks or putting a picture up on social media, what mom and dad say goes. 

2. Have You Talked About Discipline With Your Parents?

Disagreements about how parents discipline their children or whether grandparents should be allowed to discipline their grandkids are often cited as the number one conflict between parents and grandparents.

No two families will feel precisely the same about this topic. It’s nearly impossible to provide a clear-cut answer about whether grandparents should or shouldn’t be allowed to dole out punishments.

Instead of finding a precise yes or no answer, decide what you and your partner are comfortable with.

It’s unlikely that grandparents will never have to discipline their grandchildren. After all, when we’re not around, the last thing we want is our parents to allow our kids to run around like crazy people without consequences for their actions.

Instead of forbidding them to punish your children for misbehaviors, decide what types of discipline are appropriate and explain them clearly.

3. How Do You Feel About Unsolicited Advice?

By the time grandkids arrive, many grandparents have done and seen it all. No wonder they want to offer their kids a few words of wisdom about child-rearing.

While some advice is a welcome part of parenthood, most new parents don’t want your input on every little move they make. Now that we have our own children, we want the chance to figure things out for ourselves and decide what works best for our family. 

4. When Do You Want Your Parents Visiting You and the Baby in the Hospital?

There’s nothing quite like the excitement of a new baby coming onto the scene. No matter how badly your parents want to get in their hugs and snuggles, make sure you’re clear about hospital visit expectations. 

Maybe you want a few hours to yourself after your baby arrives, or you want to hold off on visitors until you get home. 

No matter what you prefer, grandparents should respect those wishes. They might not like it, but it’s your decision to make. 

5. Are You Okay With Drop-In Visits?

Doesn’t it seem like many grandparents love dropping by unannounced – especially during the early days after a little one is born?

While sometimes these pop-ins can be a delight, especially if they’re helping with chores like dishes or laundry, they can also be inconvenient when trying to establish family routines. There’s nothing wrong with setting up roles for grandparents who want to come to visit.

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3 tips to navigate Grandparents Overstepping Boundaries

It might seem easy to blame grandma and grandpa for any issues that arise. Before you start complaining, it’s helpful to bite your tongue and consider whether you’ve been clear about expectations or done anything that could cause potential problems.

Keep the following tips in mind when trying to avoid issues between you and your parents.

1. Be Careful with Oversharing 

My mother and I have a close relationship – because of this, I talk to her about everything.

I’ve learned over time, however, that oversharing information can give people a sense of entitlement when it comes to expressing their opinions.

If there are certain things you know you and your parents disagree on, like potty training or which way the car seat should face, do your best to avoid conversations about those subjects. At the very least, you should be conscious of going into too many details.

This will set up a natural boundary that allows you and your partner to make decisions for your family and encourages grandparents to tread lightly regarding parents’ rules.

2. Set Clear Limits

When it comes to grandparents, whether it’s your parents or in-laws, it’s crucial to remember they’re not usually trying to be malicious (unless, of course, they can be categorized as abusive grandparents).

They often do things without realizing how much they might be bothering you, your partner, or your children.

Whether it’s giving them that extra snack before dinner or letting them stay up past their bedtime, it’s essential to express your expectations clearly.

Your child’s grandparents won’t have the opportunity to correct their behavior if they don’t realize they’re doing something wrong in the first place.

3. Ask for Respect (and Give it in Return)

I’m not a very confrontational person.

In fact, I tend to become a bit of a doormat when facing uncomfortable situations. As a mother, however, I’ve developed a newfound sense of ferocity regarding my children.

Don’t get in the way of what I think is best for my little ones, and don’t criticize the methods I’m using to parent them.

If a grandparent belittles your approach to child-rearing, find it in your power to let them know. Demand the respect you rightfully deserve as a parent.

And when you broach the subject, don’t forget to put those great feeling words to work:

  • When you say that, you make me feel like an incompetent parent.
  • When you did that, it made me feel embarrassed in front of my child.
  • When this happened, I felt like you didn’t respect my role as their parent.

With this in mind, it’s also worth noting that our children’s grandparents also deserve respect. There are ways of tackling these issues without being cruel and unappreciative of grandparents’ role in our kids’ lives.

Should You “Punish” Grandma or Grandpa for Breaking the Rules?

This is a tricky question.

When it starts to feel like nothing you do for your children is good enough or that your parents have zero respect for your decisions, the impulse might be to “punish them” for not obeying your boundaries.

Is this the right decision, though?

Before you get angry and cut off communication and visits with grandparents, why not choose another path?

If you’ve already created a list of boundaries for grandparents, your next step might be sitting down and talking to them. 

After all, it’s impossible to ignore the benefits our parents can bring to our children’s lives when we allow them. It’s always better to talk things out first before you make rash decisions that could hurt everyone involved.

Having Tough Conversations with Grandparents

Are you nervous about having important conversations with your own parents or your spouses? Check out the tips below.

First, explain how they’re making you feel while including specific examples of moments and situations where they went against your requirements or made you feel bad about your parenting.

It’s not always easy to have these conversations one-on-one.

Suppose you’re having a hard time communicating with toxic grandparents. In that case, it might be worth your while to bring in a third-party expert, like a family counselor or another unbiased family member, to help mediate the conversation.

This is especially important if anyone within your family has a mental illness.

After you’ve re-explained the boundaries you expect them to follow and tried to talk it out, if they’re still not cooperating with your wishes, it might be time for more significant actions.

In fact, 42% of parents who felt ignored after attempts to fix a situation with their children’s grandparents eventually limited their kids’ time with grandma or grandpa.

While keeping our kids from their grandparents isn’t usually preferred by anyone involved, it’s sometimes the only action available to get your point across.

A multi-generational family is sitting on the couch smiling.
Setting rules for grandparents can be tough. Here’s how to do it without creating animosity!

What Grandparents Should Not Do – How to avoid becoming Toxic Grandparents

In many situations, grandparents are not a problem to be solved. They are a blessing to our families and a welcome relief when it comes to helping our children.

At the end of the day, most parents will take as much help as they can get, and if you have it from your parents, you’re incredibly fortunate.

The old adage says, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Grandparents are a significant part of that village. The important thing is to figure out how to be a good grandparent.

This doesn’t mean showering your grandkids with expensive gifts, handing out sweets they’re not supposed to have, or demanding to spend time with them whenever it suits your fancy.

It means supporting your grandkids and their parents.

It means offering insight when it’s asked for and lending a helping hand if needed.

It’s about being an uplifting role model in your grandkids‘ lives and helping them and their parents achieve the goals they hope to meet.

We all need to come together and ensure we’re on the same page about that relationship.

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Have you ever thought about putting together a list of rules for grandparents? What would you include?

6 thoughts on “3 Tips for Setting Boundaries with Grandparents

  1. As a grandmother I find this article extremely negative about grandparents. So I have to be in lock step with my children’s expectations to see my grandchildren? I was the parent and now I’m toxic and overindulgent? It’s bad enough to feel I only get to see my grandchild is my child needs a babysitter now I get policies and procedures to follow and job reviews. Wow. What a no win situation. Mary Poppins couldn’t meet these expectations.

    1. Yes, if you want to see your grandkids at all you have to abide by the boundaries of the parents. You had your chance to parent. Now it’s their time.

    2. So entitled. Your grandchildren are not your children and if you feel this way I feel sorry for your daughter in law. You need to fix yourself by going to therapy and not making your expectations fall on everyone else’s lives. You aren’t owed a single moment with your grandchildren from when they are born to dead. Ridiculous. Karen.

    3. Maybe ask them if you can see your grandchildren more. Make an effort to reach out and ask if (insert day) can work, and if it doesn’t then suggest another day. Let them know you want to spend time with them! But also ask yourself why do you only get to see them if the parents need a babysitter… did something happen that made the parents upset, or have they expressed to you a concern you maybe pushed aside. You won’t know if you don’t ask and communicate. But also, if they set rules please try to follow or the parents will probably decide they’d rather not deal with the conflict and not need you to spend time with their kids. Communication is key!

  2. It comes down to respect.
    If you treat the parents with respect you will naturally stay within the boundaries.
    Boundaries are healthy and we all need them.
    My mother in law tried to pull my baby from my arms.
    She chased me around the room trying to get to my baby who was crying in fear.
    She questioned my breast milk purity the day after I was released from the hospital.
    She invited herself over without asking permission.
    She never washed her hands.
    This is the definition of disrespect.
    This is the reason why boundaries are so important for a healthy relationship.

  3. I agree with everyone after the grandmother’s comment . Seriously respect our boundaries as the parents .

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