Having grandparents in your child’s life can be hugely beneficial. They can be babysitters, confidantes, and they can play an instrumental role in your child’s development. But, when they become overly involved in your child’s life — or your parenting choices — it may be time to set a list of boundaries for grandparents to follow. No matter how much parenting experience grandparents may have, they’ll need to respect you and the rules you have for your kids.
In many cases, parents wait until grandparents overstep before speaking up. That’s OK, but it’s better for everyone if boundaries for grandparents are discussed right away. “Because there are so many ways to raise children and so many potential components to a grandparent’s role, parents can lovingly explain how they want their child to be cared for,” Sarah Epstein, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Dallas, Texas, explains to Romper. “This way, grandparents are set up for success and do not feel blindsided by making a misstep for something they didn’t realize was important.”
Although it may feel awkward, setting boundaries can actually prevent conflict down the line. “Boundaries help preserve the relationship between parents and grandparents and can send the message that the grandparents trust the parents to make the decisions with their own children,” Epstein says. “In this way, boundaries bring families closer together.”
Grandparents overstepping boundaries? Here are 7 things grandparents should not do
There are a lot of different ways grandparents can overstep boundaries and, to some extent, exactly where the line is will depend on your family and your comfort levels. Some of the most common are ways that grandparents overstep are:
- Giving overly-lavish gifts around birthdays or the holidays, or for no reason at all, in a way that is out of tune with your wants or expectations.
- Messing with your child’s schedule by confusing a child’s schedule by changing nap time, bedtime, or screen time without asking.
- Competing with other relatives, particularly other grandparents. It's probably time to set a clear boundary if a grandparent says things like, "You have more fun with me than your other grandma, right?"
- Offering kids foods and drinks you don’t want them to consume (or at least limit), like sugary cereal in the morning or dessert in place of dinner.
- Imposing their religious beliefs on your child. For example, insisting that you baptize your child, regardless of your own religious feelings.
- Over-sharing on social media. Posting photos of your child social media even after you’ve said you’re not comfortable with it.
- Taking sides. You want grandma and grandpa to love your kid, of course. But ultimately, when it comes to really important stuff — like sleep, nutritional choices, or screen time — you need to know that all of the adults are on the same page. If they’re inclined to side with your kid instead of supporting you, it’s probably time to have a conversation.
Why do grandparents overstep boundaries?
“Grandparents overstep boundaries for a variety of reasons,” says Michele Goldman, clinical psychologist. “It may be because they were raised in a home that did not have strict boundaries and do not think boundaries are necessary. It might be because they do not respect the person setting the boundaries. It might be because they disagree with the boundary and think their boundaries are better or more well-informed. It could be because they are not clear on the boundaries or they do not see how pushing back on a boundary is impacting the person setting the boundary.”
Regardless of the reason grandparents are overstepping, if it’s bothering you, it is time to speak up.
How to set boundaries with grandparents
The truth is, it’s not easy or comfortable to have a conversation about what you’d like your child’s grandparents to do and not do. It can be awkward to broach the topic, especially with in-laws you might not feel 100% comfortable with, but if you think of boundary setting as a way to preserve your own relationship with your parents or in-laws, you may find it’s not as hard as you feared. Here are five ways to approach setting appropriate boundaries with grandparents:
- Practice setting boundaries with others first. If you’re nervous about approaching your parents or in-laws, Goldman suggests you first practice setting boundaries with someone who is more likely to honor and respect them immediately, like a friend or a babysitter. “Practice makes perfect!” Goldman says. “Build up to the most difficult member of the family after some practice and having other family members on board with the boundary.” This also allows the grandparents to see that they aren’t the only ones being given a boundary, which may make them feel less targeted or defensive.
- Get on the same page with your partner. You shouldn’t even think about creating a list of boundaries for grandparents without first discussing them with your partner. You’ll want to get aligned, Epstein explains. “It is important for a couple to speak in terms of what ‘we’ want,” she says. “This is especially important if grandparents suspect that their daughter or son-in-law has stricter boundaries, leading them to think of that person as uptight.”
- Communicate clearly. When it comes time to talk to your child’s grandparents, don’t beat around the bush. It’s essential to explicitly define what the boundaries are and, Goldman suggests, you might also want to explain why you’re setting them. “Parents should not have to justify their reasons for setting a boundary but, if grandparents are overstepping, some explanation may be helpful.”
- Hold the line. You’ve addressed the issue, told them what not to do, and explicitly stated what you want done instead. And, yet... they are doing it again. Never let this behavior slide, Epstein explains. “If parents let things slide because they don’t want to deal with confrontation, this will reinforce the fact that it is OK to overstep boundaries.” It’s not okay that they’re not respecting what you said, and what you don’t need to get aggressive, you do need to speak up.
- Ask for their help. If your parents or in-laws seem insulted by your request at first, you can ease the blow by continuing to show how much you appreciate them. “Ask them for help in some way, thank them for their support in those areas,” Goldstein says. “If they feel valued and needed in some spaces, they may be less inclined to push back in other areas.”
List of boundaries for grandparents
Obviously, the boundaries you choose to set are entirely your choice, and it will differ for everyone. Pick boundaries that feel very important to you and that you feel strongly about. Some common grandparent issues you might want to set boundaries around are:
- Showing up to your house unannounced.
- Giving gifts for no reason, especially extravagant gifts.
- Posting pictures on social media without permission.
- Undermining parents’ rules in front of the children.
- Criticizing parents in front of the children.
- Physical expressions of affection, like kissing your child on the face or making children feel guilty for not giving them a hug or a kiss.
- Screen time. Offering excessive screen time or exposing children to violent or inappropriate content.
- Drinking too much alcohol when children are nearby.
- Talking about other family members in a negative way front of the children.
It’s not unusual for grandparents to push back or just not take you seriously. “Grandparents may use the phrase, ‘Well, when I was raising you... you turned out just fine!’ to justify or explain why their approach to parenting is valid,” Goldstein says. “How we used to raise children is not necessarily the same way we raise children today. Even if some things might be the same, the parents have the right to choose how they would like to raise their child. Every family is unique and it is the parent’s responsibility to explain what the boundaries are.”
When it’s time to set these boundaries for the grandparents in your child’s life, keep in mind that you aren’t doing anything wrong by asking them to respect your wishes. Remember that they love your child, too, and want to be in their life. Strong boundaries can lay the foundation for the closeness and harmony that everyone ultimately hopes to share.
Sarah Epstein, licensed marriage and family therapist