granddaughter ready to blow out cake candle sits on grandmother's lap, other family look on

Parenting across generations – tricky, but worth working at

One of the most common, but hidden, causes of family conflict is when parents and grandparents disagree on how to care for and discipline children.

A typical scenario might be where the grandparent allows the child to have treats or toys even when Mum or Dad has said “no”. Grandparents often like to indulge their grandchildren, and may feel that it’s their right to do so because day-to-day discipline is no longer their responsibility. Parents may be surprised – where was all this indulgence when they were growing up? Comparing what they see now with their own memories of a stricter upbringing can cause more negative feeling and conflict.

Problems can also occur when grandparents want to pass on all their wisdom and experience in the form of frequent suggestions, but this can seem to the parent like constant criticism; most parents don’t like unsolicited advice and are likely to respond badly if they haven’t asked for an opinion.

Dealing with your own parents can be tricky enough, but if you’re having these kinds of problems with your in-laws, the situation can be even more delicate. The last thing you want is to drag your partner into an argument, but on the other hand, you may feel you need some support. You might be dealing with different cultural norms, where not everyone has grown up with the same expectations and beliefs about a wide range of family and parenting issues.

So, is it normal to feel annoyed and frustrated, or even disrespected, if grandparents don’t agree with your parenting approach? And what if you’re the grandparent, and feeling upset because all you want to do is be helpful and do whatever’s best for your children and grandchildren? After all, parenting doesn’t stop once a child turns 18.

The first thing to remember is that you’re not the only one dealing with these kinds of problems. In recent years, we’ve been studying ways to bridge some of the communication and expectation gaps, and help bring everyone onto common ground when it comes to managing children’s behaviour.

Trials have been run on a “Grandparent” version of Triple P. It’s designed not so much for grandparents who are caring full-time for their grandchildren (a separate issue) but for families where grandparents often “look after” their grandchildren.

The first trial has resulted in apparent benefits to three generations: kids, parents and grandparents. While the research found that it was very common for both grandparents and parents to feel frustration and have difficulty communicating, doing the course definitely helped. In particular, the grandparents reported that they had lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress, and that (perhaps not coincidentally) grandchild behavior problems had decreased.

Interestingly, the program also helped grandparents feel more confident when having conversations about delicate parenting topics with parents, and resulted in a better relationship between the eldest generation and their own (adult) children. 

Adjusting to new roles takes time for everyone. While arguing with your parents or in-laws is all too common, it’s not conducive to a happy home life, especially for the children. Doing a parenting course can at least help everyone agree on some basic issues. You might not be quite ready to all move in together, like this family, but maybe you can create a little more intergenerational harmony – and that’s good for everyone.

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