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Healthy boundaries for grandparents

Many parents look forward to having grandchildren. It is an amazing experience when we find our adult child is expecting. Every family is different, and every grandparent has different ideas about what their role will be. This is generally not discussed before the baby arrives. In time, problems may arise between the parents and grandparents about the grandchildren.

Given that a couple could potentially be dealing with four (or more, in blended families!) sets of grandparents, issues can become very complicated. 

The only time grandparents should interfere is if there is abuse or neglect. 

Some parents feel that as they have raised children, they have a level of knowledge and expertise that their children do not. Others feel they should be central in the lives of their grandchildren. It can be hard enough to keep things smooth with four grandparents, let alone 

six or eight!

Setting and respecting boundaries is central to healthy relationships. Boundaries are tools that allow us to choose what we are and are not comfortable with within a relationship or activity. Creating healthy boundaries is crucial because we can feel taken advantage of, depleted, or intruded upon without them.

Family life has changed since grandparents were children. It is important to realize generational changes and the context in which our children are living and raising their children.

A sports team has rules, and if all play by those rules, then good games can happen. In the absence of rules, one could imagine more time fighting than playing! The same is true in families and relationships. Each family can work out its own boundaries, but I will offer a modern-day template that allows for healthy relationships with parents, children, and grandparents.


Respecting the rules

The first rule is that the parents of the grandchildren are the ones who decide what their boundaries are in regard to their family.  The second rule is that everyone should respect the boundaries they set, whether they like them or not. If your neighbor builds a fence on the property line, we respect that – without arguing for a fence farther into their yard so we can have more freedom to cross the property line. Having a tug-of-war with the parents about their rules creates stress and hard feelings, and ultimately can result in significantly less involvement with the grandchildren.

Grandparents are important people in the lives of grandchildren, and can be a valuable support for young parents. Although likely unintended, they can come across as manipulative, controlling, undermining, critical or overbearing. This can cause the parents of the grandchild to feel insecure or incompetent.

Let’s look now at some common boundary violations that must be avoided to keep that relationship strong and healthy:

  • Not honoring the parent’s wishes is a big violation. If they don’t want you to give the child candy, spend more than a set time on a phone or tablet, or stay up beyond bedtime, it is inflammatory to violate their rules. It is undermining their parenting, even making them look like “bad guys.”
  • Asserting your opinions without being asked for input about potty training, co-sleeping or starting preschool  is crossing a line, more so if presented critically, using words like “stupid,” “ridiculous,” or “misguided.”
  • Criticizing their parenting is inappropriate, and worse if done in front of the children. They may be your children, but they are adults. Do not expect them to parent as you did, or to pass down the same traditions or religious beliefs.
  • Other violations include buying grandkids expensive gifts without checking with the parents, insisting on certain baby names, posting pictures of grandchildren online without parent’s permission and not giving them space.

Everyone wants to see the grandkids as much as possible, but the parents need to have the space to be a family. It can be burdensome for grandparents to want time every weekend, or 

who show up unexpectedly.

If the parents are upset about a violation, do not try to minimize, justify, or respond defensively. Instead apologize, even saying, “thanks for letting us know how you feel about that. We will be more careful going forward.”


Parents’ prerogative

What can you do to protect your boundaries as a parent?  Firstly, and importantly, be on the same page as your spouse, partner or co-parent. You may not feel a boundary is as important as they do, but it is important that you respect your partner’s need for particular boundaries.

Talk to the grandparents. Usually, it is best for the biological child to speak to their own parent(s) privately. Talk about how you feel without criticizing anyone involved, if possible. 

Stress that you want a healthy relationship with them, and for them to be in the lives of your children. That is why you are mentioning these things.

Finally, if they ignore your boundaries and persist in disrespecting you, it can be okay to cut back on visits for a while.


Gwen is an author and award-winning psychologist.  To obtain books or audio files, visit Follow Gwen on Facebook for daily inspiration.


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