Grand plans: Navigating the new, tricky territory of your parents and in-laws as grandparents

By ParentTV on 1 Mar 2021
Categories: General Parenting

In our last post, we talked about the importance of the dyad relationship, and how pivotal it is for healthy childhood development. We also mentioned that secondary caregiver relationships are also important and can be hugely beneficial to kids. For a lot of kids, these secondary caregiver relationships will be with their grandparents. You know, grandparents. The ones who never let you watch telly until your homework was done and who barely let a skerrick of sugar pass your lips when you were a kid, but who are now giving your child free reign of the house, undisputed command of the TV remote and an endless supply of chocolate.

Those ones.

How is it that grandkids can get away with so much when we got away with so very little? Why is it that our parents can accept that we are now adults with electricity bills and jobs and drivers’ licenses, but still not accept that we might have our own ideas about parenting?

The grandparent, parent and child relationship dynamics are super complicated for a lot of us, often unexpectedly. We might have imagined that our parents would respectfully step aside, follow our lead and/or shower us with praise when it comes to the care of our children, but that’s not always the case.

So, what do you do when the relationship your child has with your parent(s) is actually a cause of stress or angst for you? How do you cope when the grandparents of your children throw your rules out the window and your instructions in the bin? What do you do when your in-laws try and give you advice that you don’t want, agree with or find helpful? And, why is it that seeing our parents interacting with our children provokes so many big, conflicting and confusing feelings in us?

Let’s start with that last one!

Understand the child within you

When you’re navigating grandparent territory, it’s important to be clear about where you’re coming from and how this is informing your responses, says ParentTV expert and psychologist, Dr Vanessa Lapointe. ‘We are all the ages we have ever been,’ says Dr Lapointe.

So, when you enter into a new parent-child relationship as a parent, the familiarity of it can reawaken negative experiences and feelings from your own childhood. But, it’s not your grown-up self feeling those things, it’s the child within you.

Dr Vanessa Lapointe

Similarly, it might be the child in you that is reacting to how your parents are behaving with your child now. It might be hard seeing them love unconditionally if you didn’t get that love, or be carefree with bedtimes and mealtimes if you were on a strict regime from dawn ‘til dusk. It can be particularly difficult if you’re seeing them actively disregard the information you’ve given them about your own family’s rules and routines.

‘It’s also not uncommon that, when we as parents see our parents or in-laws breaking the rules that we’ve set up, we can feel triggered,’ says ParentTV expert and psychotherapist, Susan Stiffelman. We revert to the kid version of ourselves when we didn’t feel like our parents understood or respected us.’ More on this soon!

Understand the autopilot nature of traditional parenting

‘Parenting’ never even used to be a thing people ‘did’. Kids just grew up. Those of us parenting children today benefit from a wider societal understanding of how our parenting choices can impact our kids, so we’re probably going to evaluate our options a bit more.

But, prior to the last few decades, people usually parented in the way they were parented without debating the alternatives too much, explains ParentTV expert and psychiatrist, Dr Kaylene Henderson.

In understanding our parenting and how we were parented, we need to understand our different types of memory. First, there’s autobiographical memory, which has a story attached to it, and you’re in that story. These memories are coded in language, and that’s why you won’t necessarily be able to access memories from when you were really little, as you hadn’t yet developed the language skills to lay down those types of memories.

Dr Kaylene Henderson

Okay, that’s a revelation, go on…

‘Then, there’s another type of memory that is more implicit, about how we do things,’ Dr Henderson says. ‘This is procedural memory, and lets us remember how to do things on autopilot, like riding a bike or driving a car. The memories that guide how we parent are stored as procedural memories. From when we’re very young, we’re storing up procedural memories about how to parent, based on how we are being parented.

This is like a template, and explains why we sometimes channel our own parents when we’re parenting. But, some of us may want to try to do things a little differently from our own parents. We can consciously try different approaches, but we first need to understand what our own default or autopilot settings are.’ And, what the default settings of our own parents were, given that they didn’t necessarily know they were ‘parenting’.

Maybe, if they had ParentTV back then, they might have done things differently, or maybe not. But, at least they would have access to the wealth of information that we do. ‘Knowing about our autopilot can help open us up to learning new ways of doing things and approaches we might never have considered if we closed off our minds and assumed we were already doing things the only right way,’ Dr Henderson confirms.

Understand how to respond to your parents’ grandparenting

So, now that we’ve explored why parenting can give rise to so many feelings about our own parents, let’s talk about what to do with them all! Because we’re all about practical suggestions at ParentTV, we’ll address some particular scenarios that seem to come up a lot: grandparents ignoring your instructions for the care of your kids and grandparents giving unwanted advice about this care. Rule-breakers first.

‘For lots of children, the grandparent can be the most special person in their lives. As parents, we want to nurture this relationship, but there are times when our parents or in-laws break the rules. That’s just how it is,’ says Susan Stiffelman.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t weigh in and make requests of the grandparents if you feel like the choices they’re making when the kids are with them are not good for the kids, not healthy or are undermining the rules and routines you’ve established in your home.

Susan Stiffelman

But, when you do this, it needs to come from a grown-up place, Susan says. ‘Try saying, “Mum/Dad, we really ask that you limit screen time when you’re looking after Johnny. It may not make sense to you, I know Johnny enjoys it when you stretch the time out but it makes it harder for us when he comes home.” If you say, “You always undermine everything, just like when I was a kid,” you might not get very far…Criticism is a really lousy way of making a request, so just make the request. Instead of making your parents or in-laws wrong for doing what they’re doing, just connect with what feels true to you and ask for it.’

Now, for that other doozy – what to do with all the unwanted parenting advice from our parents or in-laws. ‘Sometimes, our parents give us advice that we haven’t asked for, and it doesn’t always land well. We take it personally, and feel that they don’t trust us, respect our parenting sensibilities or support us in the ways that we’re longing for them to support us,’ Susan Stiffelman says. ‘We’re still their kids and it’s still wonderful when we feel like they’re cheering us on and recognising the work that we’ve been putting into being good parents, so it can bring up a lot of big feelings when we feel criticised by our parents or in-laws.’ Oh yes. So, how do we respond? Well, maybe don’t respond at first, Susan says, at least not until you have calmed down.

The first thing to keep in mind if you’re being bombarded with advice you haven’t asked for is to stay with yourself, because if you immediately react and pounce on that other person and tell them you didn’t ask for their opinion, then you create a cycle that isn’t very healthy, where that grandparent feels hurt, shut out and not appreciated.

Susan Stiffelman

‘Remember, they have had children, they raised you and they do believe they have experience under their belt that you do not yet have. They may genuinely believe that their role in your life and that of your children is to share what they’ve learned along their longer life path and spare you and their grandchildren from making the mistakes that they’ve made.’

Okay. So, what can we say, then? ‘You can express how you feel without shaming, judging or scolding,’ Susan says. ‘When someone gives you advice that you haven’t asked for, they’re crashing your party. But, you can let them know that you love and respect them and there will be times you want them to weigh in, but this isn’t one of them and you hope they can receive that. Tell them you need to forge your own path on this one and you hope that they’ll support you in that.’

Ultimately, grandparents are a hugely important part of the family for those of us who are lucky enough to have them around. It’s a special relationship that our parents can have with our kids and it’s special for us to witness, especially when we’ve worked through all the other feelings that come with it! And, not only do parents still need parents sometimes, we also need as many people as possible around who are going to love and support our kids alongside us. ‘Children who grow up with many healthy loving attachments just do better, and we do better when we have that support from our parents and in-laws, too,’ Susan Stiffelman says. ‘I encourage you to work on strengthening those relationships with the grandparents in your child’s life so you can all benefit.’

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