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Child Misbehaves in Front of Grandparents

QUESTION: When my daughter-in-law corrects our nine-year-old granddaughter in our presence, our granddaughter tends to get belligerent and ugly to her mother. This makes my husband and I feel as though we might have something to do with it. We try to abide by their rules, and we love our daughter-in-law very much. Do you have any advice for us?

ANSWER: Children do test limits, and this age is no exception. Your granddaughter is aware that her mother will likely feel a bit inhibited about disciplining her in front of company, and she may be temporarily enjoying her newfound freedom ... even (you guessed it!) taking advantage of the situation. Perhaps she even imagines that grandma or grandpa will take her side, especially if she sees you in only a positive, loving light, which is a common role for grandparents.

It does not sound like it is your fault at all! This is a common situation that many grandparents are exposed to at one time or another. Power struggles are a natural part of children's development. Your granddaughter may be practicing a sense of power over her mother, or may be expressing her anger at her when she feels she can "get away with it." What better way to challenge mom's authority, than in front of grandma? Limits will need to be set, but not by you. Your grandchild and her parents will resolve whatever conflict may be surfacing around her burgeoning independence.

But in the meantime, no doubt it causes your daughter-in-law tension, and makes you feel uncomfortable, too. Although there is not much you need to do, you may lessen the tension if you are able to comment on the embarrassment itself. Perhaps you can acknowledge the tension by sharing experiences you may have had as a parent. For example, can you ever remember being embarrassed by your son (her husband?) when he was this same age as your granddaughter? Finding a solution is not necessary. Establishing a point of connection and the reassurance that comes from the perspective of time, however, can be rewarding to both of you. The struggles and experiences of embarrassment that children bring to us as parents are precious only in retrospect!

This is your chance to bond with your daughter-in-law around the travails of parenthood. Offer her your camaraderie, as one who has been there. Not only will this be likely to ease tension in the situation you describe, but it may free your daughter-in-law to act more spontaneously in your presence. When that happens, your granddaughter will lose the advantage she holds, and the acting out may stop.

This is not an unusual occurrence. It is often short-lived, as parents realize what is happening and adjust their behavior to match the situation. Your daughter-in-law will no doubt step up to the challenge to end this rude behavior, which may only erupt when you (or another audience) are present.

Be prepared for a resolution to occur on one of your visits, when your granddaughter is finally sent to her room (or whatever the consequence is for rude behavior!). Once a child understands that a parent is no longer inhibited from showing firmness and delivering consequences in front of others, the game is up!

Whatever is going on between parents and child will need to be worked out among themselves. You are already sensitive and respectful of this, so there is no need for you to believe that you are causing any problems whatsoever!

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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