For Mommies

When grandparents become “too helpful”

Grandparents are driving me crazy…

Grandparents who want to be actively involved in their grandkids’ lives can be a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, given today’s busy schedules, it’s nice to have the help and support. On the other hand, it’s sometimes hard to know where to draw the line between help and interference. To complicate things, as the parent, your own definition of help vs. interference can shift, depending on how you feel at the moment.

Here’s a typical scenario (names and specific circumstances are fictitious, based on a composite of different cases):

After Emma returns home from the hospital with her new baby, she is grateful that her mother-in-law, Lorraine, has offered to come over every day for a few hours to help out. At first, it’s a relief to have someone take care of the laundry and pets while Emma and the baby get to know each other. She also appreciates some of Lorraine’s helpful advice, such as, “It’s a good idea to have a towel close by when feeding the baby, just in case he spits up.”

But after a while, Emma starts to feel smothered. Every time the baby cries, Lorraine rushes over to assess the situation and offers her opinion on what Emma should do. Lorraine also cooks hearty meals for the family. It’s not that Emma doesn’t enjoy the food, but she’s trying to lose weight after the baby and finds it hard to resist the creamy sauces and desserts.

There’s more, but you get the picture. At first Emma was grateful for the help. However, as her strength and confidence increased, she began to resent the help. Now it feels like interference. Her mother-in-law, who seemed so helpful a few weeks previous, has turned into a control freak.

Not that Lorraine is doing anything different. What has actually changed is how Emma perceives her mother-in-law’s “help.”

You might have had similar experiences where your positive feelings morph into resentment, which can affect your perceptions and other relationships.

Let’s say, for example, that your parents visit frequently and always bring toys for your children. It’s not long before you start wondering whether your parents are competing for your kids’ affection. You find yourself resenting not only your parents, but also your children for their delight in the toys.

Or, suppose that your mother-in-law’s constant advice is getting on your nerves. When you complain to your husband about her, he dismisses your feelings: “There’s no reason to be upset. She means well.” Now you feel unsupported and angry with him as well as his mother.

When these types of issues are not addressed they can fester for years and cause major rifts within families. The best time to deal with them is early on, but if you haven’t done so, it’s never too late.

So what can I do if the grandparents are driving me crazy?

  • First, examine your own assumptions.

    When your kids’ grandparents offer advice or step in without consulting you, do you assume that they think you’re incompetent or that you lack judgement? You’ll need more evidence than your feelings, because feelings are not reliable indicators of another person’s motivations. Just because you feel controlled, doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person is trying to take over your life.

  • Consider other possible reasons for their eagerness to help.

    Some grandparents have a strong desire to feel appreciated or needed in the lives of their children and grandchildren. Others have personality quirks, such as a strong urge to tidy up. And some grandparents might simply assume that you expect their help, because you’ve never said otherwise.

  • Accept the help, but on your terms.

    Make specific requests for what you would like the grandparents to do, rather than telling them what not to do. For example, Emma in the scenario described above, might say to her mother-in-law, “Lorraine, I love your vegetable soup. Would you have time to make some this week?” This is a lot more effective, than saying, “Lorraine, you know I’m trying to lose weight. I wish you wouldn’t make so much lasagna.”

  • Confront with diplomacy.

    If the grandparents’ over-zealous helpfulness has been going on for a while, and you want them to back off, you’re going to need to confront them — in a diplomatic way. This doesn’t guarantee that feelings won’t be hurt, but it helps minimise long-term misunderstandings.

  • Begin by expressing appreciation for all they’ve done.

    Then explain that it’s about your need to feel in charge rather than something they’ve done wrong. And, never confront the grandparents in front of the children.

  • Involve your kids’ dad

    — especially if the overly helpful grandparent is his mother or father. Discuss with him about how you feel and ask for his support even if he does not feel the same way. Then work out a plan for talking to his parent, preferably together.

  • Be clear about your expectations.

    It’s OK to say something like, “I understand that you think the kids should be allowed to stay up later when you babysit, but it throws off their sleep schedule for the rest of the week. So please make sure they’re in bed by 8 p.m.” If the grandparents violate this rule, be prepared to find another baby sitter.

“I’ve tried all the above, and it didn’t work.”

If adjusting your perceptions and confronting the situation does not change things, there might be some deeper psychological issues within you or other family members. A mental health professional can help you sort that out.