The 5 Biggest Mistakes That Grandparents Make

The 5 Biggest Mistakes That Grandparents Make

We tend to think of grandparenting as easy and filled with joy compared to the long slog of parenting your own children. And it’s true that being a grandparent may allow you to participate in fun and festive occasions without having to sacrifice your financial security or uninterrupted sleep.

But there are a number of ways that being a grandparent can cause stress as well as amplify any tension with your adult children. If you’re hoping to nourish strong relationships and minimize conflict with your grandchildren and their parents, here are a few missteps experts suggest you avoid, as well as what you can do to repair the damage when you do something you regret.

Giving gifts parents haven’t approved or giving money without communicating expectations.

It’s considered typical grandparent behavior to shower grandchildren with gifts, but gift giving can become a source of tension if you and the child’s parents don’t agree on what constitutes an appropriate gift.

“Sometimes grandparents can get into trouble because they buy things for their grandchildren that their parents may not approve of, are too expensive or too excessive in nature,” Christopher Hansen, a licensed counselor in San Antonio, told HuffPost.

A good way to avoid this is to clear any purchases, or a plan for purchases, with parents beforehand. For example, “Grandma is taking you to the zoo. You can look in the gift shop at the end of the visit and pick out one small stuffy for her to buy you.” This clarifies expectations for everyone and lets the parent know that you respect their authority, which helps cultivate trust.

Complications from gift giving frequently arise when it comes to financial gifts. With the cost of child care taking an average of 27% of families’ earnings, it’s common for grandparents to either step in as child care providers or contribute to costs such as day care and tuition. But financial gifts can result in hard feelings if the money is used in a way you didn’t intend.

“Clarify whether there are any expectations that accompany the gift,” Robin Kay Stilwell, a licensed marriage and family therapist, told HuffPost.

“Is it a gift for the adult or child to use as they see fit, or do you have expectations regarding how you want it to be spent?” added Stilwell, who has practices in Washington, D.C., and Florida, and is a grandmother herself.

Again, the best way to prevent issues from cropping up is through clear communication beforehand. You might agree, for example, to pay 50% of a child’s preschool tuition for two years with the understanding that you won’t be able to continue with similar amounts once the child enters kindergarten.

Not respecting parents’ schedules.

Dropping by unannounced, Stilwell said, is a definite no. Doing so “sends a message that your convenience takes priority regardless of the disruption to the flow of the family unit. It is particularly difficult during dinner time, homework time or bedtime.”

You also want to show understanding for how tightly packed parents’ schedules are. “Many times, grandparents forget that their children have lives with work and other commitments and don’t always have time nor want to have the time to have grandparents over because they simply are tired and are living their own lives,” Hansen said. This can sometimes mean that you don’t visit as often or for as long as you would like — but remember that the quality of the time you spend with your grandkids is more important than the quantity. Do your part by showing up and honoring any commitments you make to them.

Parents’ “primary loyalty needs to shift to their family of creation,” Stilwell explained. “It can be a challenge to see them as adults with their own lives, making decisions that are disappointing to you but work for them. Avoid framing this as disloyal.”

Of course, you want parents to respect your schedule as well — particularly if you’re one of their child care providers. If you’ll be providing child care regularly, it can help to set a schedule. Likewise, you’ll want to let parents know about any ongoing commitments as well as your ability (and willingness) to “drop everything” to care for grandchildren if the parents are in a pinch.

“If a grandparent acts as a caregiver without clear parameters or expectations, resentment can develop,” Stilwell said.

Criticizing the parents’ parenting style.

It can be a challenge to keep quiet if you see parents making what seem to be clear mistakes, but make sure that if you do raise concerns you maintain respect for their authority.

“The grandparents often have a different approach to parenting that may be contrary to how the kids are raising the grandkids. It may also be different from how they parented the now-grown children. Both the parents and grandparents can be judgmental and critical of the others’ style. This can create a wedge in the relationship with the grandkids,” Stilwell said.

You may feel disrespected if parents seem to dismiss your many years of experience, but at the end of the day, they have to make decisions that feel best for their family.

“Sometimes grandparents take for granted that their children’s belief system and the way they want to raise their children matches what they did, and many times that’s simply not the case. Communicating and finding out how they feel about certain subjects and other things regarding their child goes a long way toward ensuring grandparents don’t overstep,” Hansen said.

When it comes to things like household rules and discipline, it’s helpful to have these discussions beforehand. Clear expectations can prevent conflict later on.

Extra caution is warranted with in-law relationships, particularly in cases of divorce.

“A good rule of thumb is to avoid criticizing your child’s spouse or partner, directly or indirectly, even if they are the ones to vent or initiate negative comments,” Stilwell said.

Not respecting boundaries.

“Circumventing the authority and wishes of the parents,” Hansen said, is “another area where grandparents get into trouble.”

Whether the issue is gift giving or household rules, “if the adult children feel that their parenting ‘rules’ or schedules are ignored or undermined, it can bleed into other aspects of the relationship, including their trust,” Stilwell said.

If you want to be part of your grandchildren’s lives, it will need to be on terms that both you and their parents agree to.

“Talking with one another is always the best way to gain an understanding of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable,” Hansen said.

The stronger your relationship and communication with your adult child, the less likely you are to run into conflicts over care of your grandchildren.

“Communicating and finding out how they feel about certain subjects and other things regarding their child goes a long way toward ensuring grandparents don’t overstep,” Hansen said.

Not working through issues as they arise.

Of course, caring for kids can be complicated, often requiring you to make many decisions in rapid succession. It’s inevitable that at some point you will do something counter to parents’ wishes. How you handle this will set the tone for your relationship moving forward.

“A sincere apology,” Hansen said, is an excellent place to start. “Making amends to your grandchildren or children is not a sign of weakness and demonstrates for both that even grandparents make mistakes and are human.”

As with any repair work, you’ll want to acknowledge the other person’s feelings, take responsibility for your actions and offer a pledge — and perhaps a plan — for not repeating the mistake in the future. You might say, for example, “Next time I will set a timer to remind all of us when it’s time to turn off the iPad.”

Though you may not feel that your actions were a mistake, “You can acknowledge that your intentions were positive and that you will work on respecting who they are and what they need from you,” Stilwell explained.

It can take time and practice for everyone to become comfortable with your role as a grandparent. Have some compassion for yourself, too.

“As a new grandfather, I have absolutely made all the mistakes I have mentioned myself,” Hansen said. It’s easy to “forget that our children are now parents and have their own belief system, rules and the way they want to do things.”

Showing your adult children that you respect their time and their authority as parents will help cement your role as the beloved, trusted grandmother or grandfather.

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