The moment a couple hears, “We’re pregnant,” from their adult children, life takes on a whole new meaning. Both grandparents–to-be and mommy- and daddy-to-be begin dreaming of the wonderful and exciting adventure that lies ahead. Preparations, parties and the long-anticipated birth seem to happen in a whirlwind. With all this activity, it’s unlikely that the couples are thinking much about what their relationship with each other will be like.
Everyone is thinking a lot about that precious bundle of joy but not a lot about how a baby changes the relationship between the two generations. But it will. Big time.
Like parenthood, grandparenthood is uncharted territory. Adjusting to these new roles will take time, and there will most likely be some bumps and glitches along the way. Disagreement between generations is part of life. But you can you up the odds for a good relationship of mutual respect and understanding—even if you’ve been a parent (or grandparent) for some time and things aren’t going as well as you’d like.
Here are four steps parents can take in building a healthy relationship with grandparents. These steps help smooth the transition for grandparents and help them understand their new role.
Grandparents need to know you acknowledge their feelings. Maybe they are feeling frustrated, sad, lonely or annoyed. Whatever it is, showing that you truly understand their perspective helps them to better accept the situation. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them or you have a solution. It means that you care and recognized that they might be struggling. To be helpful and received well, empathetic statements should be sincere and devoid of sarcasm.
Here are some examples of empathetic statements:
- “Mom, we know how sad you are that we can’t get together more often. We are too.”
- “Dad, I know it can be a bummer when the kids don’t listen to you.”
- “Mom, I know it can be frustrating to see me do things differently than the way you do them.”
- “Dad, I know it can be disappointing that Andrew isn’t interested in your favorite sport.”
When things might be heading toward a disagreement, you can neutralize the situation with empathetic statements such as:
- “Hmm, that’s an option. I’ll get back to you on that.”
- “Thanks for sharing that.”
- “I love you too much to argue.”
Empathy is like a blanket of care that wraps around sensitive or unsettling situations. It can help grandparents cope with disappointment or frustration. And it is contagious. When you empathize with them, chances are they will be more empathetic with you as well.
2. Set boundaries.
In your household, you will be doing some things differently than the way you were raised. Grandparents need to have a clear understanding of that and of your expectations. This can help prevent misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Using an enforceable statement lets grandparents know what you are comfortable with and gives them the opportunity to go along with your decisions.
Here are some examples:
- “I’d be happy to have you come over as long as you call first and we are available.”
- “We’ve worked out a sleeping/nap schedule that works for us. As long as you follow this schedule, we’d be happy to have you babysit for us.”
- “I know you have different opinions about the way I do things. I’d be happy to have lunch with you as long as I know you won’t be bringing up our disagreements.”
- “Please serve fresh fruit for dessert. If you’d like to serve something else, please check with us first for suggestions as we want to limit the amount of sweets.”
- “I’ll call you on Sunday and bring you up-to-date on things. I won’t be able to call before then.”
- “When you visit, we want you to be comfortable and have privacy, so we’ve made arrangements. at a hotel. This makes it easier on everyone. Thanks for understanding.”
- “We don’t watch much TV with the kids. Let’s talk about other things they can do when they come over.”
- “We only let the kids use the iPad on weekends and limit it to 15 minutes. We would be happy to send it over with the kids as long as you apply the same time limits.”
Setting clear boundaries and expectations boosts the odds that grandparents will be respectful of your wishes. As parents, you make the decisions about family values and guidelines. This gives grandparents the opportunity to understand what you expect from them. Hopefully, they will get on board. When grandparents honor and respect your wishes this creates goodwill and enhances your relationships. Have discussions with your spouse and consider ahead of time what you’re going to do if or when grandparents don’t respect your boundaries. This can help keep you calm and give you options in deciding how to handle it.
3. Affirm their efforts.
Express appreciation and take note of how grandparents help make life a bit easier. Be specific and sincere.
- “Thanks, Mom, for coming over at the last minute and filling in. I really needed a break.”
- “Dad, you did a great job fixing the swing. The kids and I appreciate you.”
- “Your gifts were generous and thoughtful. We know you put time and energy into getting what the kids would enjoy.”
- “It sure was wonderful seeing an empty sink with no dirty dishes. Thanks for taking care of that!”
- “Picking up the kids so I could get some errands done was a big help. It lowered my stress, and I got a lot done.”
Grandparents may not always do things exactly how you’d like them done. Focus on the effort instead of the outcome. Make specific comments about how their gift of time and energy helped you. This can increase the odds they will want to continue supporting you in the future.
4. Love with “grace.”
Grandparents come with strengths and weaknesses—just like everyone else. Perhaps they had a difficult childhood. Maybe they have limited parenting abilities or lack sensitivity. Sometimes they cross the line. Showing love with “grace” is about forgiving shortcomings and accepting them “warts and all.” This doesn’t mean you must agree with their approach or that you will allow them to do what they want. It simply means you have made the decision to have them participate in their grandchild’s life to the degree that you are comfortable with. When grandparents are a blessing and offer an added dimension of love and fun to your child’s life, accepting and forgiving when they get off track is worthwhile.
Parents can get so overwhelmed and busy with daily living and raising a family they can forget grandparents can help in offering support. Grandparents can get so caught up in the love of a grandchild that they can forget parents need attention, too. When parents empathize, set boundaries, affirm grandparent’s efforts and love with “grace,” they can help create goodwill and further the shared purpose of both generations: loving and guiding the child.
Note: If you’d like tips on how grandparents can follow these same steps to enhance relationships with their adult children, please visit the author’s website.
Janada Clark, M.A. is a parent educator who has taught at Stanford and throughout our community. She teaches Love and Logic parenting classes at various locations. In addition, she is an instructor at Day One in Palo Alto. For more information, visit www.janadaclark.com. You can also find her on Facebook.