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Rules for Grandparents: 3 Crucial Tips for Establishing Boundaries

granddaughter, grandmother, and mother pose for a photo while sitting on a couch

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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 happened to receive 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 steps in to be the hero and negate what I had just said.

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

The Push and Pull Between Parents and 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 in which grandparent involvement in our children’s lives is a free-for-all.

There are never enough cookies, late nights, and stern looks at parents who are 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 are sure to help us ALL in the long run.

What are Toxic Grandparents?

There’s no denying that grandparents are wonderful people we love and often depend on.

That being said, however, there’s a thin line between what’s helpful and what’s stepping over the line.

In most circumstances, our parents might 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 have a general lack of 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, while others could actually be perpetrators of emotional abuse and can cause serious issues with mental health for parents and children.

Are you trying to figure out the difference between a grandparent who’s blurring the lines and someone who’s taken 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.

The #1 Rule for Grandparents: Never Disrespect the Parents

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 roles and responsibilities for their children, rather than going against them.

When it comes to rules for grandparents, the worst situation of them all is when grandparents disrespect parents.

Why Boundaries with Grandparents are so Important

On any given day, parents are faced with hundreds of seemingly insignificant choices that we have to make for our children.

While these might not matter much in the long run, decisions about bedtimes, what food to eat, and discipline techniques are carefully made to benefit the family dynamics we’re hoping to create.

After carefully thinking about these various parental guidelines, it becomes our duty to enforce them with our children for the sake of family relationships.

When a grandparent comes along and speaks out against the rules, all the hard work we’re doing as parents can become moot, and our children lose trust in our ability to follow through with rules and boundaries. This is a toxic relationship.

In situations like these, it’s critical to come up with a list of boundaries for grandparents that you can use to try and regulate all the relationships involved.

List of Boundaries for Grandparents

If you’re concerned about toxic grandparents overstepping their role in your children’s lives, it might be time to consider whether or not it’s stime to set boundaries.

father, son, and grandfather fishing

By creating a list of boundaries for grandparents, you can help avoid more drastic measures that sometimes feel necessary, such as grandparent estrangement or cutting ties with grandparents.

Not sure what boundaries to instill? Here’s a list of suggestions you might want to consider:

1. Be Careful of Oversharing with Grandparents

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

I’ve learned over time that oversharing information can give people a sense of entitlement when it comes to expressing their own 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, or at least 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 when it comes to parents’ rules.

2. Set Clear Limits

When it comes to grandparents, whether it’s your own 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 an abusive grandparent).

All too often, they 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 state your opinion on these types of situations 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 have a tendency to become a bit of a doormat when it comes to facing uncomfortable situations. As a mother, however, I’ve developed a newfound sense of ferocity when it comes to 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 is belittling 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 the role that grandparents play in our kids’ lives.

Should You “Punish” Grandparents 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 the boundaries you’ve set.

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 to sit down and have a conversation with them.

Having Tough Conversations with Grandparents

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.

If you’re having a hard time communicating with toxic grandparents, 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 dynamic is suffering from 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 the amount of time their kids had 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.

Should Grandparents Discipline Their Grandchildren?

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.

Deciding whether grandparents can discipline grandchildren is a personal choice.

No two families will feel exactly 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 nearly impossible to envision a world where grandparents will never have to discipline their grandchildren. After all, when we’re not around, the last thing we want is our parents allowing our kids to run around like crazy people with no consequences for their actions.

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

Make sure to clearly express your rules for grandparents and let your parents know what you are and aren’t comfortable with when it comes to disciplining your child.

How to Be a Good Grandparent?

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 with our children.

Sadly, for other families grandparents just don’t seem interested in their grandchildren, or parents don’t want toxic grandparents involved in the lives of their children.

Some other grandparents might simply not understand what it takes to be a good grandparent, and ultimately, it’s your choice to include them in your kids’ lives if you feel like they can grow into that role.

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.

As the old adage goes, “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 the lives of your grandkids and helping them, and their parents, achieve the goals they hope to meet.

Don’t Forget the Benefits of Grandparents Along the Way

When I walk into my mother’s house, and she starts nagging me about my child’s hair not being brushed enough or the fact 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 have to 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. However, our community understands how painful it can be to deal with grandparents who just don’t “get it” or don’t even try.

In situations, like these, please know that you are supported by our community of fellow parents that understand your frustration and sadness about not having the relationship you might want with your kids’ grandparents.

If you want to make a change in the relationship between yourself and your parents, understand that putting boundaries in place 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.

We all need to come together and make sure we’re on the same page about what that relationship entails.

Have you had to set up certain boundaries for your children’s grandparents? What do they include?

6 thoughts on “Rules for Grandparents: 3 Crucial Tips for Establishing Boundaries

  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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