"I'm ghosting my own mother" - psychotherapist reveals the 5 most common grandparenting 'fails' (plus how to deal with them)

 Older lady with cropped silver hair lifting a toddler above her head.
Older lady with cropped silver hair lifting a toddler above her head.

Let’s talk grandparents. Not everyone has their parents involved in their kid's life, but many do and this can throw up all kinds of conversations, tricky dynamics and a mix of feelings.

We are told that it takes a village to raise a child, but what happens when those in your ‘village’ are somehow adding to, rather than easing the mental load of parenting? Or unintenionally making your days - especially as new mother's navigating matrescence - that little but longer and harder? Family relationships are rarely completely smooth sailing. While research shows that children having good relationships with their grandparents have fewer behavioural and emotional problems - at what cost? What do you do when you feel like your parenting is being judged or undermined by your own parents?

A survey by C.S.Mott Children’s Hospital discovered 43% of those parents whose children often see at least one grandparent, experience disagreements about their parenting choices. 15% of parents report this hurts their child’s relationship with their grandparents. As we journey through our busy days, we need more support than ever before, so rifts and unspoken unease between parents and grandparents can feel heavy.

As a psychotherapist to parents and a mum to three, I have encountered many challenging dynamics with grandparents both in and out of the therapy room. Grandparents can form an integral part of a parent’s support network, and can offer children a special, cherished bond. But often this requires a level of openness, flexibility, a willingness to learn and see things differently, and the bravery to have some sticky conversations along the way. So, if things have gone awry, how can you get things back on track? And what do you do next time you feel that sense of unease at a decision made or a word shared?

In this article, I share five of the most common themes of disagreements and tricky conversations that parents tell me they are having (or avoiding having) with the grandparents, I also offer some solutions to help you find a way through it.

Five most common grandparent 'fails'

  1. Discipline

  2. Food

  3. Screen time/TV

  4. Routine

  5. Safety & consent

1. Discipline

In the C.S.Mott Children’s Hospital poll, 58% of parents reported discipline as the main fuel for disagreement.

Mum, Jenny shares her experience. ‘My parents were pretty strict when I was young. I know they did their best. But I’ve read so much about emotional development, and have chosen to parent Jesse in a gentler way. I know they don’t agree, and have said that I’m ‘too soft’ on her. The other day I heard my mum telling Jesse off for crying, trying to bribe her to stop with chocolate. I was so cross, but every time I try to explain, she takes great offence and reminds me that I ‘turned out well, and kids need to be taught how to be tough’.

My thoughts: This is a hugely common dynamic and is largely due to the huge shift in awareness of the different impact of parenting styles on emotional development that our own parents weren’t privy to. My recommendation would be to find a specific podcast or resource that really warmly and clearly explains your approach to parenting, and recommend(outside of the moment of conflict) that your mum has a look.

Try saying: It might be helpful to say something like ‘I know that my approach to parenting is different to yours. I am not saying that you didn’t do a great job at all. I am appreciative of all you did for me. It’s simply that there has been lots of new understanding about finding new ways to nurture our children’s mental and emotional development, and it has informed how I parent Jesse. I think it would be great if you could listen to this podcast as it does such a good job of explaining it all, and then we could chat if you’d like’.

2. Food

Meals and snacks caused 44% of disagreements between grandparents and parents according to the study. Dismissed allergies and intolerances, too many snacks, too much sugary food to name but a few potential hot spots for disagreement. Rose told me ‘My mum thinks cutting grapes in half is unnecessary, and I don’t trust her to do it so I avoid leaving my toddler with her unless I’m there. How can I change this?’

My thoughts: There has been an increased awareness of food intolerances, allergies and food safety over the last couple of decades. I have worked with many parents for whom this is a cause of conflict within the wider family and they’ve felt that their child’s needs have been dismissed. I was told that as a baby I cried constantly and having had a reflux baby, I wonder whether this had been an undiagnosed issue for me too.

Try saying: For someone in Rose’s situation, I’d recommend saying something like this ‘Thank you so much for offering to look after X. The one thing that is niggling me is that you don’t cut the grapes in half. I know you don’t feel it’s necessary, but I read on the NHS website that grapes are the third most common cause of food-related accidents. Knowing that, I really feel it’s important to me that you either cut the grapes, or we avoid offering them as a snack whilst she’s with you. What would you prefer?’.

3. Screen time/TV

Screentime is a huge topic of conversation among parents at the moment and I get it, but screens really are not the enemy. 39% of parents cited screen time and tv as being the topic of disputes with grandparents (C.S.Mott Children’s hospital). Siobhan shares with me that her father would loudly tut or sigh every time he witnessed her kids watch TV or play on their tablets. ‘I felt judged all the time. It’s not like we don’t have boundaries around screen use, but sometimes the kids need to have some downtime, and in all honesty, so do I! I feel like a child again, being told off by my dad’.

My thoughts: Ooh the tutting; the unspoken, but very clear disapproval. It’s hard to feel misunderstood, and sometimes so tempting to find many ways to explain why we do what we do regarding parenting, but if someone isn’t willing to hear it, then finding peace with being misunderstood can be the biggest gift we can give ourselves.

Try saying: You might wish to say something like this ‘I really sense you disapprove of the kids being on screens. If you’d like me to chat with you about why we have screentime, and what boundaries we have as a family, then I’d be more than happy to. If not, then even though you might not understand or support my parenting choices, it would mean a lot to me if you tried to respect that I’m doing the best I can with the understanding I have’

Grandson in grandfathers arms
Grandson in grandfathers arms

4. Routine

Routine can be another bone of contention for some parents and grandparents. To keep the balls in the air we tend to rely on strict routine leaving little margin for drama, late-running meetings, traffic or sickness. This can create a stressful, perfect storm of pressure for any grandparent and parent relationship. One late pick up, one missed nap, one gripey tummy, and the house of cards come tumbling down, as Darren found. ‘My mother-in-law doesn’t ‘believe’ in routine. She looks after our son twice a week and we’re so grateful, but as she overlooks our nap schedule. This means that the one hour I get to spend with my son, Tom, after work is spent trying to placate his overtired crying. I’m really beginning to resent her because of it.'

My thoughts: This is so tough, isn’t it? I’d encourage Darren to have an intentional chat with his Mother-In-Law about this, gently letting her know the impact that missed naps has on their time together. Resentment points to unacknowledged costs and emotions.

Try saying: I’d recommend saying something like ‘I’d love to talk about how we can ensure Tom gets a good nap in the day. I know he loves his time with you and is full of beans when we pick him up, but he gets overtired in the evening and struggles to settle. Routine isn’t for everyone, but we really find it works well for Tom, and it would mean a lot if you could continue that for us when he spends time with you’.

5. Consent

Acknowledging the importance of physical boundaries around touch can create conflict. ‘My Mum demands hugs and kisses from the kids, and won’t leave them alone until they comply. I’m trying to teach them that they have autonomy over their bodies and that they don’t have to hug or kiss someone if they don’t want to. It’s becoming really awkward because my mum is there forcing it, and I’m there telling them it’s okay if they don’t want to. It’s confusing for the kids and my mum argues that it’s a ‘sign of affection and respect’ to be hugged and kissed. I now brace myself for those first few moments when we go to their house’.

My thoughts: Consent is another area which has gained huge awareness and press since our parent’s generation, and rightly so.

Try saying: You might say ‘I know it means a lot to you to have a hug and a kiss from the kids. We’ve been teaching them about consent, as research shows it’s important, they’re able to say ‘no’ when it comes to their bodies and boundaries. We have learnt that the best way for them to practice this is to respect them when they show that they don’t want a hug or a kiss. It can feel hard for me too sometimes, but we want to show them that others should respect them when they say ‘no’ when it comes to boundaries and physical touch, and in turn, that they should respect others too. I’m learning that it’s not a personal rejection, but an exercise of their own autonomy.

Why are parent/grandparent relationships so tricky?

Here I look a little deeper into some of the reasons parent, grandparent relationships might be more strained than they may have been a generation ago. Firstly, Google. Since our parents parented us, the internet appeared on the scene. Whereas our parents would turn to their own parents and peers to answer any questions, the internet is our first port of call. With the gargantuan amount of research and resources now available to us to teach us the ‘right way’ for every single aspect of parenting, we are both blessed and cursed. Blessed because we can make safer and more informed decisions, cursed because we lose that valuable relationship-enriching moment of turning to a parent or friend, or even our gut sense. Parenting has changed dramatically. Not because ‘we know best’ but simply because we know more. Making different decisions around feeding, routine and discipline can sometimes feel confronting to grandparents as if they experience this as a criticism of their own parenting choices.

A grandmother hugging a young boy while sat on the sofa
A grandmother hugging a young boy while sat on the sofa

Secondly, our own parents may well be working later into life than our grandparents did due to increased cost of living and delayed retirement. This can mean that grandparents have less energy or time available to them to offer the support that might be needed. Add to this the increased cost of paying for childcare, and you end up with the option of any grandparent care being much more alluring, whilst not necessarily as readily accessible at it would have been a generation or two ago.

Finally, as we focus our energy on keeping all the balls in the air and the pieces of the jigsaw in place, we are less likely to spend relaxed, quality time with our wider family. When exchanges focus on logistics rather than happy chatter over Sunday lunch, there may be less of a foundation of relationship upon which to have tricky discussions. Tiredness and stress make conversations around boundaries, differing opinions and conflicting caring styles harder to have as we’re much more reactive when frazzled.

When these conflicts go unaddressed, swept under the carpet or sidestepped, then it impacts relationships. Many parents have shared with me that because of caring differences, they’ve begun to avoid spending time with Grandparents to avoid talking about ‘the elephant in the room’, or despite offers of childcare, have opted for nursery instead, at extra cost. Most problems have arisen because grandparents have refused to acknowledge or align with the parent's choices or approaches to routine and discipline.

What to do if your relationship with your parents falls apart?

As with any conflicts that arise with grandparent, you can only be honest and open about how you feel, and choose to articulate yourself in a considered way. However, it can be incredibly tricky when your words and suggestions aren’t received in the way that you hoped they would, and in some cases, painful rifts and ruptures can occur.

If you know that there’s a conversation to be had, and some dust to be cleared but are unsure about how to tackle it, here are some ideas on how to go about it:

  • Find a time when people are calm and free from distraction. Acknowledge your common, shared goal ‘to nurture and love your child’. Acknowledge that you both have differing ideas and experiences that shape your understanding of what that looks like.

  • Explain your thoughts calmly with an open mind. Remember that you’re all trying to do your best in caring for your child, despite the differences.

  • Consider sharing or talking through some resources, books, articles or podcasts that have shaped your approach. Explain that it would mean a lot to you that the grandparent might engage in the resource so that they better understand your stance on this aspect of caring for your child. Talk about where the opinions differ and consider any flexibility or compromise that may be available.

  • Placing solid, clear boundaries may be the way forward if you’ve tried everything and nothing seems to align everyone when it comes to caring for your child. It can feel like a huge, formal thing to do, to set ultimatums, but for some families, it’s what it comes down to in order to maintain relationships and feel supported in parenting. Family mediation can be a good option for those who’d benefit from some external guidance in navigating these difficult conversations.

  • Keep on - keep talking, keep holding healthy boundaries, keep nurturing your support network whatever that may look like for you.

Grandparents are an important family pillar for many, studies show that mothers are less likely to struggle with their mental health if their kids’ grandparents live close by. Sometimes, though, parents are forced to wonder if grandparents really love their grandkids more than their own children as they call their grandparents sweet grandparent nicknames and get showered with gifts - though one set of grandparents is more likely to spoil their grandchildren than the other.