Dealing with the other family when your baby has a baby

One of the greatest pleasures of watching your adult children start families of their own is the thrill of becoming a grandparent. Having a grandchild can give us a renewed sense of energy, purpose, fulfillment and fascination. However, being a grandparent can also be hard work, sometimes frustrating, and fraught with new unsettled feelings, especially when there are other grandparents vying for the grandchildren’s time, attention and love. Though many of these feelings are perfectly normal, conflicts may occur, and having the tools to work through them is the key to resolving them.

Matt Lundquist
Matt Lundquist is a psychotherapist and founder-director of Tribeca Therapy in Brooklyn.

When parents become grandparents, there is a natural shift in relationships, according to Matt Lundquist, a Brooklyn-based psychotherapist and founder-director of Tribeca Therapy. While a parent may have become accustomed to the parental role, the new dynamic as a grandparent is more of a “supporting role.” That alone can be an adjustment, but it can be compounded when there are other grandparents as part of the family unit.

There may be issues related to grandparenting style, with one set of grandparents being more indulgent and less disciplined than the other. Perhaps one set of grandparents likes to spoil the grandchildren with expensive gifts or trips, while the other prefers a less extravagant approach to quality time together. There may be personality conflicts, where grandparents are simply averse to one another and their feelings are exacerbated by more time spent together. Or one grandparent may feel resentment that the other is able to spend more time with the grandkids, by virtue of living closer or having more time to devote to the relationships. 

Communication — between the grandparents and parents, and perhaps among the grandparents themselves — is fundamental to resolving these types of issues, Lundquist stressed. 

“Being direct, being upfront and addressing things sooner rather than later” is best, he said. “When there are conflicts, not talking about them makes them worse, because then things are unspoken and left to assumption.” 

Families may not think of therapy as a first line of defense, but when conflicts seem insurmountable, family counseling may help — either in-person or virtual. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote videoconference therapy became the norm, Lundquist said. Today, it’s proving to be an invaluable tool for getting the whole family together for counseling, especially when the family unit is geographically scattered. 

Grace for grandparents

Dr. Sarah Bren
Sarah Bren, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder/clinical director of the Upshur Bren Psychology Group in Pelham.

It’s important to think about family dynamics in terms of stages, according to Sarah Bren, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder/clinical director of the Upshur Bren Psychology Group in Pelham, New York. There’s early childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, becoming a parent and ultimately, becoming a grandparent. As an individual is going through changes at each life’s phase, so too are the other members of the family, and everyone is trying to navigate these changes not only as individuals but in relation to one another. It’s not always a smooth transition. 

Take, for example, hierarchical conflicts, whereby a grandparent wields financial power over the adult parents. “You may have one grandparent who is financially supporting the parents in the interest of having more access to the grandchild,” said Bren. “That can cause jealousy or competition with the other grandparents.”

When conflict arises among grandparents, it’s important to modify behaviors. “Think of how the family can work together to create more safety within the family system,” said Bren.

Establishing boundaries can help. “There are three kinds of boundaries,” she explained. “There’s an external boundary, where you ask someone directly to stop doing something or start doing something. It requires their cooperation and their willingness to respect that boundary. 

“There are also internal boundaries, where you’re saying, ‘I’m not going to take in what you’re saying.’ You don’t need anyone’s cooperation or even to make the boundary known. It’s private, just for you. … Finally, there are physical boundaries, which is to create physical distance.”

Like parents who have different styles of parenting, grandparents will have different styles of grandparenting. “It’s OK for kids to have different types of relationships with different care providers and different attachment figures” as long as the behaviors aren’t destructive or dangerous, said Bren.

Bren suggested that grandparents should afford themselves and the other grandparents some grace, particularly when grandparenting isn’t precisely how you imagined it would be. 

“If I had this fantasy of what it would be like to be a grandparent — and the fantasy of the relationship I would have with my grandchild — and it doesn’t look like that when it actually occurs, [I’m] going to feel grief,” she said. 

“It’s great to be able to focus on the parts of the experience that feel good, to feel gratitude for it. But just as I tell new parents, let’s not whitewash this experience into making you feel that it’s only supposed to be a happy experience,” she added. “When you have sad, angry or frustrated feelings, it’s like grieving the loss of a fantasy of what you thought being a grandparent might be like, and then you feel guilty.” 

The best way to build intimacy and closeness with your grandchild — regardless of the child’s relationship with the other grandparents, who may be experiencing similar feelings — is to “be curious.”

“Maybe you thought that grandparenting would be baking cookies and reading stories to them all the time — that your grandchild would naturally be cuddly with you, but your grandchild doesn’t really like hugs or is sort of intimated by intense physical affection. Maybe they’re rambunctious and can’t sit still for two seconds so you can read a book to them. … Instead of trying to mold them into the kid we want them to be, express to them that you want to know what they’re interested in, and follow their lead,” she explained. “If you’re showing the child that you’re interested in learning about them, it really makes kids lean in.

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