How To Create Boundaries With Your Kids' Grandparents

For The Grandparents Who Are ‘Just Trying To Help’

Upset senior woman.
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It’s no secret that having a baby changes relationships—not just between the new parents, but between new parents and new grandparents. Even if you previously had a great relationship, this big change creates big emotions. And honestly, it can create a big pain in the butt.

We all want that healthy, happy, positive relationship with our baby’s grandparents. But sometimes we need help. Because there will be times of tension and moments of frustration. I can’t be the only one who has wanted to slap someone when they crossed a boundary with my child…right?

Here are some things I’ve learned as a new parent about how to set and stick to boundaries with my child’s grandparents. (P.S. Feel free to send this to your kid’s grandparents. Maybe it will help them see it from your perspective and, if they get upset, you can blame me.)

Focus on the big picture.

Parents: Remember that grandparents are usually trying to help. They (hopefully) want to support you and your new family, but they might not know how— you’ll have to speak up and set your own boundaries.

Grandparents: Whether it’s your son and daughter-in-law’s new baby or your daughter and son-in-law’s new baby, the fact remains: it isn’t your baby, so please don’t act like it is. Your primary motivation should be to support the parents and respect their boundaries. Focus on this first, before slobbering on the new baby, can help prevent problems.

Language and expectations matter.

A dear friend told me her in-laws kept talking about the “special memories” they planned to make with “their” grandchild and how they’re going to have a “special relationship” with “their” grandchild. PLUS, they bought a crib, stroller, and car seat for themselves, assuming the baby would be at their house a lot. My friend was furious. Their actions felt overbearing, insensitive, and quite honestly, creepy.

Parents: Speak up if a grandparent is using words, phrases or doing anything that feels inappropriate. Communicate your boundaries of how people can interact with your child(ren). Don’t allow grandparents’ expectations to influence your choices about your child. Remember and act from this truth: you are the parent, they are not. (I am still reminding myself of this.)

Grandparents: Language is powerful, so be careful to not overuse the pronoun “my.” Instead, just use the word “baby” or the child’s name. Also, steer clear of words or phrases describing how you desire a “special relationship” with the child. These approaches can come off obsessive and possessive.

Likewise, be careful how you share your expectations. You might be daydreaming of cuddling the baby to sleep and giving yourself a new-age grandparent name, but the parents may not want you to kiss or hold their baby. They may ask you to wash your hands every time you hold the baby. And, with COVID-19, these boundaries may be stricter.

Set aside your own expectations and instead, align them with the parents’ expectations. This shows you’re truly putting their needs first and will earn you their trust.

Know there IS such a thing as a stupid question.

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Hands up if you’ve ever been asked a weird or inappropriate question from a grandparent… anyone? Yes? Me too. Being curious is fine, being rude is not.

Bad questions: Can I touch your belly? Can I feel my grandbaby move? Can I wear the baby? Can I bathe or feed the baby? Can I put her into the car seat?  Did you know grandmothers can learn to breastfeed again? Can I be in the delivery room? Are you disappointed you didn’t have a “natural birth”? (Yes, I’ve received all those questions. *sigh*)

Good questions : “How can I help you? How can I support you?” Show that you’re here to help and support the parents how they want to be supported.

Parents: If a grandparent asks an inappropriate question or makes a rude comment, tell them. It might be unintentional. Speak up, then wait for them to respond. Hopefully, they apologize and won’t do it again.

Grandparents: If those bad questions seem intrusive and inappropriate, GOOD. This means you’re emotionally intelligent. If you’re confused, let me clarify: you don’t have a right to ask or make comments about the baby’s care or his/her birth. It’s rude. No exceptions. Please only ask respectful, kind questions.

Accept the difference between grandparents.

Not all grandparents are created equal. Maternal grandparents usually spend more time with the grandchild than the paternal grandparents. Why? The mother of the baby is likely to feel more comfortable around her parents and trust them more with her baby. And, it can be easier to set boundaries with them vs. the in-laws.

(If you need more proof, read this: why maternal grandparents are closer to their grandkids.)

Parents: You’re not sharing joint custody of your child with their grandparents, so don’t act like it. It’s not your job to appease them or make them happy. Whoever you are more comfortable with is exactly who you should spend more time around.

Grandparents: If you’re a paternal grandparent, don’t try to compete or compare your relationship with the baby and parents to that of the maternal grandparents. Don’t be rude to your daughter-in-law if she prefers her parents. Accept this difference; it’s normal!

When in doubt, don’t say it.

Giving unsolicited advice gets everyone into trouble. Even if your advice or input is well-intentioned, it doesn’t matter. Don’t say it. Don’t suggest it. Trust me, just don’t.

Parents: If you can, turn the other cheek and laugh off the advice or just ignore it. But, if you feel comfortable, tell them in-person (or write an email if that’s easier) their advice isn’t helpful and how it makes you feel.

Grandparents: Think that the baby should be held in a different way? Want to share a story of how your child slept through the night at six weeks? Keep it to yourself. If parents want advice, they’ll ask for it. If they don’t ask, they don’t want it.

Don’t abuse modern technology.

Video chats, texts and pictures are incredible tools for connection, but they can also become a source of pressure.

Parents: You set the boundaries; you make the rules. Don’t feel pressured into communicating more than you are comfortable. Remember: just because we have access to our phones and each other 24/7 doesn’t mean we have to be in contact 24/7.

Grandparents: Think less is more. To parents, if you check-in too much or constantly ask for updates, it can feel like you are trying to have unlimited access to their lives. They don’t owe you daily or weekly updates of their baby. Also, some parents love posting about their kids on social media, others don’t. Respect that. Media usage is personal.

Important note: never post a picture of a grandchild or any child on social media without express permission from his or her parents. This violates trust and privacy.

Think and act with a long-term perspective.

Grandparents: If you want a good relationship with your grandchild, you must start by building a good relationship with the parents. Guess what that means? Respecting their boundaries and adhering to their wishes—this builds trust, the foundation of all relationships.

If the parents don’t want you coming out after the baby is born, that’s okay. If that hurts your feelings, that’s okay. It’s not about you. Yes, you can have feelings. Yes, you should process them. But not with your son/daughter or their spouse. Process them with a friend. Because you need to think long-term.

A woman recently wrote to Mommybites asking for advice on how to tell her son and daughter-in-law wanting to see their child under her terms. Dr. Karen Rancourt’s response was perfect.

“In short, I urge you to make no demands and to accept Jerry’s and Candace’s conditions with a smile and gratitude,” wrote Dr. Rancourt.  “Be patient and agreeable, and perhaps over time you will be able to spend time with your grandchild in ways that are more in line with your preferences. But right now, your desires and preferences must take a back seat to Jerry’s and Candace’s plans and decisions, at least in the foreseeable future.”

And, Dr. Rancourt finished with what should be the golden rule in grandparenting: “You have to earn the privilege to spend time with your grandchild.”

Parents and grandparents: Being part of a child’s life is a privilege, not a right. Once we acknowledge that, we can focus on building a healthy relationship—which happens one positive interaction at a time. Please know we want our baby’s grandparents to be part of our lives! We also want to feel comfortable and know our boundaries are being respected. Only then, can we trust you being around our child(ren).