When I think of a grandparent I think of that stereotypical cotton ball headed old man or lady that always have candy in their pockets and a fresh crisp dollar bill for the piggy bank waiting to pinch your cheeks and smother you in kisses. But, unfortunately not all grandparents live up to this ideal. Difficult grandparents cansometimes be obsessed, controlling and critical of both you and your children.
The conundrum begins when you start to question whether a relationship with your parents need to be severed in order to live a happy healthy life. Some people can be battling many different demons that lead to toxic and stress inducing behavior that effects the whole family. Unfortunately, even if the grandparent figures in your children's lives are otherwise normal and well adjusted they may have very toxic relationships with you as a parent (as is my case).
So how do we manage these difficult relationships without our kids suffering? Is it healthy to have toxic family around our kids even if you as the parents are the only ones affected? I know I don't have all the answers because I struggle with this balance myself as well with setting realistic boundaries with family.
All my life I've been very lax around setting boundaries with family. I was raised in this family structure where the ideas that were pushed the most is that family comes first no matter what or how they treat you. To have unlimited respect just because someone is older than me, or blood related. Looking back it's foolish to accept being emotionally abused or consistently belittled on the premise of being related or older, but hindsight is 20/20 as they say. And little did I know that this mentality is a common trait in dysfunctional family structures. People don't have the right to treat you the way they want to and expect you to just take it no matter how old you are. You decide how people will treat you and your family by setting firm boundaries.
Granted -everyone has a different idea of what a normal happy family looks like, we aren't all Jean Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver... but when does someones behavior turn into unacceptable behavior? Ask yourself these questions and dig a little deeper into what's bothering you about your relationship.
How do they make you feel?
Do your parents single you out as parent? Criticize your lifestyle? Talk about you in front of your kids when you're not around in a negative way? More importantly how do they make you feel? If you are noticing lately that you are more stressed out when your parents are around it may be time to set some preliminary boundaries and voice what's bothering you.
Are your kids being effected?
Some people who are miserable will take down the whole ship. If you think that your parents roles as grandparents are negatively effecting the kids such as being yelled at, criticized, or hit -then changes need to immediately take place. Even though the kids may not see your parents as much as they see you, extended family behavior has a very big impact on your children's self esteem and long term mental health.
There was a study published in theNational Library of Medicinethat revealed among 1500 participants that grandchildren were positively affected by having relationships with their grandparents. The opposite is also true, that grandparents that are negative and difficult can also affect your childs mental health and wellbeing over the long term. And especially if that grandparent is affecting your parenting skills those negative emotions trickle down and repeat negative or abusive cycles. It's time to break the cycle.
Are substances involved?
If you have parents that struggle with addiction, it can be a very serious situation to be in. I know from experience, one of my parents being an alcoholic, its not just cut and dry or black and white. My parent is a good person, who loves their grandchildren but acts very offensively when they drink- and truth be told that triggers me from my own childhood growing up with an alcoholic... I never want my kids to be effected in the ways that I was as a kid growing up with someone that is unpredictable. So I have kept in mind from the very beginning what I will accept and what type of behavior I will not accept.
How to set boundaries
Changes won't happen over night it takes time for some people to get used to the new rules, or their egos may get a little bruised but that's okay... hopefully your parents will respect what is no longer acceptable and start noticing that they no longer make the rules for the family.
Boundary setting can have many phases and if your relationships are important to you then it's important to start early - letting things get out of control for too long can lead to toxic relationship patterns and a lot of stress.
1. Start by communicating how you feel about unacceptable behavior
This is a good starting point if you've never upheld boundaries in a relationship. Whether its a spouse or your parents/ inlaws- starting to communicate why their actions and behavior isn't working or is not healthy for your family could be a quick fix to the situation. Sometimes our loved ones just simply don't know their actions make you feel a certain way and they are ready, willing and able to be mindful of it and change their behavior.
2. Start small and stack boundaries if necessary
It's also practical to start setting small boundaries and building upon them if you meet resistance. This of course, will depend on the severity of the bad behavior, for some a conversation is all that is needed to fix the problem and for others you may be forced to go no contact for a while before you see changes in behavior. But starting small and seeing where things go is a great beginning for anyone needing to set boundaries and continually define what you will and will not accept.
3. Stay Consistent
Their behavior won't change over night - it will take time and consistency especially if your parents are used to their ways. Its important when boundary setting to do your own emotional homework and make sure you are able to consistently hold your parents accountable for their actions. If boundaries need to be tightened then, even though that's not the outcome you want, you need to do what is necessary for how you think your kids and family should be treated. Upholding your boundaries are going to be as much an effort for you as it is for your parents.
Here is an example of what boundary setting is like;
Your parents swear and use a lot of profanity in front of the kids often with no regard or acknowledgment that they did so and show no apology for it. It's just consistently happening and they don't seem to care that the children are within ear shot. This bothers you and your spouse but out of respect for your parents (or inlaws) you don't say much about it at first. After talking with your significant other you reach the conclusion that things need to change and so you determine that you will talk to your parents and ask them to be more mindful of their language... its met with some resistance but....
Scenario 1: Your parents agree or even apologize for their behavior and things get better over time.
Scenario 2: Your parents aren't thrilled with having to change their behavior and respect your boundaries and continue to slightly change yet throw in a few zingers to test your patience, or just in an effort to maintain some sort of control that they may need to still feel (this sometimes happens with authoritative parents). Yet, your boundaries still need to be upheld so you verbally address it when they. test you and they know you're serious.
Scenario 3: They flip the script on you, insult your parenting and try to make you feel bad about yourself or your parenting as a way to deflect from their bad behavior. You get confused by the conversation and next time you see them they double down on the bad behavior intentionally swearing and acting out. This leaves you needing to regroup and rethink your boundaries, which will now need to be shifted possibly to keeping them at more of a distance until they realize your boundaries are serious. And the boundaries go on from there getting more restrictive until you find a happy place.
Unfortunately for some dealing with very toxic situations your options will call for cutting family out of your life all together. It may be essential for you and your childrens wellbeing. Seek guidance in situations that are serious through family therapy or even just therapy for yourself to gain insight and navigate these serious situations.
Deciding that changes in your relationship with your parents and their relationship with your kids need to change is not an easy thing to do - especially if you're facing cutting them out of your life. On one hand you want your parents to have the joy of having grandchildren and your children to have a great experience with them as well. grandparents and grandchildren can have such a special relationship, and personally, it has broken my heart to implement stronger boundaries with my parents. But the line gets crossed when their relationship starts damaging my children. We all have our threshold in what we will or will not allow. We all want the best for our children, and a strong desire to protect our children.