COMMUNICATION:

Toxic Grandparents – What to Do and How to Move Forward

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An interview with Amy Goyer

To say my father had a rocky relationship with his parents would be a huge understatement. There were constant arguments, followed by silent treatments, and even emotional abuse. My grandparents had a hard time seeing my father grow-up and have a family of his own. For every decision he made in his life, whether it was buying a house or choosing a family pet, they felt he needed to consult them. As a child, I saw my parents argue constantly with my grandparents and it left my brothers and me confused and uncomfortable – that was until major boundaries were set. We spoke with home and family expert Amy Goyer about what to do when we have toxic relationships with our kids’ grandparents, and the tough questions that follow. — Christina Fiedler, TMC contributing writer

What makes grandparents toxic in parents’ lives?

When there are conflicts between grandparents and parents, there is usually an issue with roles and choices. Parents and grandparents may not agree about all issues related to raising the children (grandchildren), and grandparents may not accept the fact that parents have the ultimate “authority” to make decisions and choices about how they are raising their children. A grandparents’ key role is to support their adult children in raising their grandchildren and to love their grandchildren unconditionally. If they don’t see their role that way, or if the parents see their role differently and there is no agreement, the relationship, (like any relationship wrought with conflict) can become very negative and even, as you say, toxic.

How can parents draw personal boundaries for themselves? For their children?

Parents need to be clear about their priorities and “deal breakers.” What are the issues that they feel the most strongly about? Is it most important that their kids stick to a strict bedtime schedule? Follow a certain diet? Be disciplined a certain way? Not receive certain gifts? There are always going to be things they feel strongly about, but it’s wise to pick your battles. Once you determine that, communicate your boundaries (or your children’s) in a very clear, concise way and be consistent. Be careful about how you communicate this- (see my tips below as they apply here too) – don’t turn it into a tug-o-war with the kids in the middle.

If the boundaries are crossed, what is the best way to confront an issue to make sure it is addressed?

Sandwich the issue:

When discussing controversial subjects, remember the old adage about “sandwiching”? You sandwich two positives around the negative. So if you want to talk to your parents or in-laws about these issues, think about how you can start out with a positive (a compliment, a thank you etc.), bring up the controversial issue, and then end with another positive.

Minimize the Drama:

Try to keep emotion out of it. Stay calm and don’t take it as a personal insult if your parents or in-laws don’t agree with you. Be very matter of fact and share the specific reasons you’ve made these choices – don’t assume they know and they don’t care. No one wants to hear “because I said so!” – you probably didn’t when you were growing up and your parents probably don’t want to either. Treat your parents or in-laws as you would want to be treated – with respect. Remember, someday you may be in their position too!

Validate:

Use your active listening skills – paraphrase what they’ve said or what you perceive to be their feelings about the issue you’re discussing and ask if what you’re hearing is accurate. Thank them for their concern and say you want them to know that your current choices about how you are raising your children are not in any way a reflection of them or the way they raised you. Emphasize that you hear them, but be clear about your position in a very matter of fact way.

Ask for their help:

Enlist grandparents as allies. Perhaps, for some issues, it’s helpful to be clear that you are simply raising children in a different time and have different information available to you and have made your choices based on your love for your children. Sincerely ask them for their help and make sure they know how much you appreciate their support as you do your best as a parent. Make them team members, not enemies.

Remember a grandparent’s joy:

Remember that grandparents experience great joy in “spoiling” their grandchildren. This does not mean turning their grandchildren into spoiled brats; it simply means they are enriched by generosity to their grandchildren. When possible, if you are not dealing with a health or safety issue, give grandparents a little leeway now and then.

If you are communicating clearly with respect and love, and it’s still not getting through, you might try an objective third party to aid in the conversation – a therapist, family friend, family mediator, clergyperson etc.

When is it time to distance yourself from a toxic family member?

If you have tried all of the above, including an approach with a third party to help the conversation stay focused and keep emotions out of it, and it’s still not working, perhaps taking a break might help. I would caution against completely or permanently distancing yourself, and your kids, from their grandparents. In the long run, children benefit from having adults in their lives that love them, and you could be cutting them off from that. Make sure the conflict is truly about what is in the best interest of the child and not just about your relationship with your parents – if that’s at the core then work on healing your relationship and leave the kids out of it.

If you choose to distance yourself or even cut ties with a grandparent – what is the best way to describe this choice to your children?

As I said above, while there may be situations where children are in danger and shouldn’t have relationships with grandparents, this should really be a true last resort. Children will not easily understand why you’ve separated them from someone they love or who loves them. Even if they don’t always want to spend time with grandparents, you are sending the message that it’s okay to disconnect from family. Be sure that you are okay with that message, as you are setting a precedent for the children. Better to consider a scaled-back relationship if necessary rather than totally cutting the ties.

Whatever you do, don’t lie to children – they are smart, intuitive and will figure it all out sooner or later. If there is abuse involved, get help from a therapist or counselor who is trained to deal with those issues with children. Discuss the best approach to prepare the children and answer their questions (and they WILL have questions, whether they voice them or not). Discuss the best ways to talk with the children about the family conflicts and try to avoid secrets within the family, as that only perpetuates the problems. Depending on their ages and abilities, different amounts of information can be shared with children. Don’t give them too much – or too little – to handle.

Amy Goyer is an expert in aging and families, specializing in family caregiving and multigenerational issues. She is a consultant, speaker, and writer who has worked for more than 30 years with older adults, children with special needs, and their families. As AARP’s Home & Family Expert, Amy provides expertise on a variety of issues, including family caregiving and aging in place, livable communities, grandparenting, parenting, and other family relationships, multigenerational living and family history.

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