Bite My Tongue or Speak Up? When adults disagree over parenting

Parenting encompasses so much more than just an adult to child relationship. In fact, new parents are often taken by surprise by just how much this new relationship with their child impacts their other close relationships. Of course, this is most obvious in the co-parent relationship, but also (and this is what I want to focus on here) in all the relationships within what I’ll call your tribe—could be family, could be loved ones, but, essentially, think of it as all the people who are deeply vested in you and your family—or, as it may feel at times, deeply into your business.

The nature of relationship being what it is, all these other people are also experiencing—adjusting, coping, enjoying, etc.—this added dimension in their relationship with you. And, of course, at the center there is shared love and concern for a child and wanting the best for that child.

Though adult relationships are part of the parenting picture, it’s not something we typically think about or prepare for, nor can we easily find guidance on the bookshelf when these relationships become challenging. But it is not uncommon to hit bumpy points from which resentments, concerns and sensitivities surface. Then questions arise around what to voice or what not to voice.

Many have come to me with concerns and questions around adult relationships (though they do tend to bubble up behind other questions). Below is a specific example and my response, but first I want to say one very important thing about communication in general. People find it helpful to know our suggestions come from a place of caring about them. Most people need to know this before they can let words (even the most well-intentioned words) in.

“I disagree with my daughter’s parenting”

Question: After my grandson knocked over several things, including a glass of milk, my frustrated daughter called him a klutz. I told her name calling shouldn’t be used to discipline a child. Do you agree? Please let me know how you believe these incidents should be handled. Thank you, Grandma
My Response:
As grandparents, one of the hardest things we do is support our children as they parent. It is clear that you want to support your daughter to be the best parent she can be, just as you want your grandson to be supported.

Often when we see or hear a frustrated parent we forget that they may need our help and encouragement, too. If the goal is to share something helpful with your daughter, she is much more likely to receive it if she feels your support and care. With this in mind, you might find that your daughter would be helped if first:

  • we acknowledge that it can be very hard to keep up with an active boy;
  • we acknowledge that it is no fun to be cleaning up messes that seem to be happening one on top of another (which you know because you did it at one time, I’m sure);
  • we reassure her that, in time and with her coaching, her little guy will learn to manage without so many messes.

Also, in this situation you can ask your daughter something like, “Would you like me to show him how I taught you when you were little how to clean up a spill?” and then continue with the story directed at him: “Did you know that Momma was my little girl one day and we helped each other clean up spills? Now it’s your turn to learn.”

If it’s a case where you had been with them awhile and could see a difficult day in the making, then you might have had the option to head some of it off at the pass by, for example, directing your grandson into a different kind of play or engaging him in direct conversation to help him adjust the pace of his activity before there were so many messes.

And finally, remember that when you have the opportunity for those woman-to-woman talks about life in general that these are great times to talk with your daughter about her goals for her son and how she might want you to help. When we have the chance to just talk about things without hurry or stress we can broach potentially sensitive subjects by building on those values we have in common. Then subjects such as name-calling and positive and negative terms that people use without thinking can be discussed with thought rather than emotion. From there we can begin to be mother and daughter who have also become adult friends.

Your family is lucky to have you caring so deeply for them.

From this example you can see that Grandma’s heart was in helping her daughter be the best mom she could be, but…I’m guessing her daughter didn’t respond with “Thanks mom, for drawing my attention to how I sounded. I really don’t want to be a yelling, name-calling mom.” It is far more likely that her daughter who was already on overload with the messes and her mother as company had few positive reserves left for anyone!

Had mom been less pressured or perhaps seen that it was a day when her son needed help to focus she could have:

  • Suggested that the guest leave.
    “Looks like my little guy needs more of my attention, it might be better if you leave early and we’ll visit another day.”
  • Suggested another time for the adult conversations.
    “I know you come to visit Sam as much as me. Rather than split your attention why don’t you play with him and you and I will visit during naptime.”
  • Found an activity that would have had son and Grandma engaged so that she could step mentally away for a moment.
    “Do you think Grandma would like to play cars with you?”
  • Or perhaps offer playdough to everyone for shaping and conversation.

Just as it is one of the hardest things we do as grandparents to support our children as they parent, it is one of the hardest things we do as adult children to guide our parents into their role as collaborators in helping to raise their grandchildren.

My best to all of you in the amazing complexities of family life,
Dr. Y

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