Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact

Ask Dr. Gayle

Disappointed in Grandparents

QUESTION: My son-in-law's parents do not seem to take much interest in their grandchild. I am appalled that they do not help out the way I do with my grandchild. I baby-sit, buy special gifts, and do the special things a grandmother should do. They give money for education and send the usual birthday cards. But they are not emotionally involved, although they live nearby. This is causing strife between my daughter and her husband, which is worrying me. Is there anything to do to make his parents better grandparents?

ANSWER: Grandparents come in all shapes and sizes! What you believe is a "good" grandparent evolves from your experiences, which have led you to expect and enjoy your role as an involved grandmother. Good for you! But expecting others to live up to your ideals or expectations will likely lead to strain rather than harmony in family relationships. And misunderstandings of what involvement requires may also cause strife.

Family boundaries differ. What some people experience as involvement, others may define as intrusive. Likewise, what one person sees as "giving someone space," another may perceive as abandonment.

It is natural for you to be concerned about the conflict between your daughter and her husband that is arising at this time. But rest assured that it is also a healthy process in the course of their family development. Indeed, differences in family beliefs and the expectations derived from divergent childhood experiences and family backgrounds is inevitable. Each family has its own unique culture. But it is the job of two parents to blend their family cultures into one. This necessarily sets the stage for some stress as parents discover their expectations and suffer disappointment in the process.

It is the job of your daughter and her husband to decide what kind of family atmosphere and philosophy to adopt together. Clearly, the issue of the grandparent role has stimulated this discussion. Ideally, this conflict will become resolved by their taking what they believe to be the best from both of their respective family backgrounds and changing what they find undesirable. Discussions about family members, experiences, and disappointments are unavoidable and part of the process.

Do not overreact to their situation. It is not your job to "fix" the other grandparents, but perhaps to create a better atmosphere for understanding differences. One of the most vital elements in promoting healthy family relationships is tolerance for differences. Certainly there is nothing wrong with attempting to create influence in your family relationships, but it must be done with respect instead of superiority.

Support your daughter to explore (with her partner) the ways she might help her husband's parents become involved in their grandchild's life. Arranging regular visits, sending pictures, and engaging in activities such as family picnics may all create opportunities for connection. And nothing is wrong with asking whether paternal grandparents might be willing to babysit for a short period while parents take a quick lunch together! These grandparents might be open to changing their lives to include more contact with their grandchild. But it is also possible that they are waiting for directions!

It is not uncommon for new grandparents to hold a belief that they should not make suggestions to their children when they become parents, but should take a "hands-off" approach and wait for the parents' lead. This is not an unusual philosophy for past generations to adopt, and misunderstandings about this approach occur. For example, one young mother came to me in tears because she felt slighted and ignored by her mother-in-law after her child was born. Later she discovered that this approach stemmed from her mother-in-law's childhood experience of severe conflict between her own mother and her grandmother. She had vowed never to "interfere" when she became a grandmother. Instead, she was waiting to be invited before offering help!

If your daughter and her husband decide it best to discuss their desires for his parents' involvement, he would likely be the best spokesperson. Still, it is possible that his parents have very different views, or personal needs that conflict with the expectations of others. These differences, too, will need to be respected.

Word of caution: Be careful of stereotyping. Fairy tales abound with fairy-godmother-like figures that resemble grandmothers! But we should not be held to such an archetype unless it suits our individual natures. Some grandmas are like this, and some are not. Grandparents are people, too, and each one of us is unique. We need to be appreciated for who we are and what we can give. By all means enjoy being the grandparent you are, but stop short of expecting others to be the same.

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.

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com