Ask Dr. Meg: A Grandparent’s Expectation and a Parent’s Exasperation

Setting boundaries with grandparents cab ease tensions and strengthen your family. Try these three tips to establish clearer communications and structure.
Last Updated
April 22, 2019
posted on
April 22, 2018
Minute Read

Dear Dr. Meg,

Would you consider writing/posting an article regarding the struggles that young families face regarding traveling and the expectations of extended (and usually older) family?

Little rant here…As a mom of 4 boys under the age of 9 we are always the ones expected to travel to see grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, etc. and not just at Christmas and Thanksgiving. Even today, my mother-in-law (whom I get along with) text me asking if she could host my son’s 2nd birthday party at her house which is 4 hours away!? It’s crazy. They are healthy so it’s not like they can’t physically come. I just simply find the older generation more selfish when it comes to this struggle. It adds so much pressure and expectation to young families who already want to foster good relationships with extended family – all while juggling sports schedules, play dates, jobs, budgets and grocery shopping, diapers and an ever messy house…and now we are the ones upsetting the parents/grandparents for not packing and loading 4 kids in the car to drive 4 hours to celebrate a birthday.

It just seems like the relationship between adult children and their parents would be a lot smoother if the grandparent generation would put themselves back in our shoes before asking such frustrating questions.

Perhaps you could bring some healthy perspective to both sides of this subject?

– Frustrated Mom

Dear Frustrated Mom,

Thank you for your letter.  Every grandparent should read this because you are right. In my experience, in an earnest effort to want to be involved in our grandchildren’s lives, we grandparents sometimes feel like we are the parents and we need to remember that we are not. You are. It is a privilege being a grandparent, not a right and we must always remember that.

You can make your life easier but, since your family doesn’t seem to want to put themselves in your shoes, the burden is on you to make changes. Here’s what I know will work:

Set boundaries. This is very hard for women who want everyone to be happy, and you sound like one of them. In fact, you will sacrifice your health in order to keep your mother-in-law happy and you don’t need to do this. Here’s what I’d say, “Mom – I would love to have you host Johnny’s birthday, but we can’t come to your house this year. We are just plain tired. I know that you understand because you had young kids once and you know how tiring it is. This year, we’ll have a small party at our house and we’d love for you to come and help. It would mean so much to the kids to have you here!” She may pout or get outright angry and when she does, you smother her with kindness but don’t budge on your plans. The next Christmas/Easter/Thanksgiving, do the same thing. Talk to your mother-in-law and mother like they completely understand because they were tired once too. As I said, people don’t like it when the rules are changed, so be prepared for them to fuss and even be rude, but that’s on their shoulders, not yours. They’ll come around.

Speak firmly but don’t be rude. Many parents hold their feelings in for years and then explode. Don’t do this. Be honest with family members telling them that you wish you had the energy to be everywhere all the time but you don’t. Then, tell them ahead of time what you will and won’t do. For instance, in the spring, tell everyone ahead of time where you will be for birthdays and holidays. Tell them that with your large family, you need to plan ahead and want everyone to be in on the plans. This way, there are no surprises.

Be honest with family members telling them that you wish you had the energy to be everywhere all the time but you don’t.

Ask for help before they offer it. One of the best things that you can do for your relationship with extended family is to thank them for their willingness to be involved in your lives. Tell them that you appreciate it because many grandparents aren’t so interested. Then, tell them what you would like them to do. Say something like this, “Mom, I am so grateful that you are healthy and that you want to be involved with our kids. One of the best gifts that you could give us, if you’re interested, is for you to watch the boys for a long weekend so my husband and I can get away. Would you ever be able to come down for the weekend to do that?” Sometimes you just have to be that bold. This way, they will get a firsthand look at exactly what you go through and they will be more empathetic. And – it will make them feel needed.

One of the best things that you can do for your relationship with extended family is to thank them for their willingness to be involved in your lives.

As you set clear boundaries, remember that doing so isn’t easy for most people. Be firm but kind. Also, remember that your parents-in-law aren’t trying to be selfish, they simply don’t remember how exhausting life with four young kids is. So – let them know and ask for the help that you need.

Dr. Meg Meeker, MD

Practicing pediatrician, parent, grandparent, coach, speaker, and author. Say hello @MegMeekerMD

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