Who’s in charge anyways?
By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
It’s not uncommon to find parents and grandparents living together with
everyone minding the young. In fact, by many cultures, this is a very normal
situation that works well for everyone. It tends to work best when everyone
knows his or her place and it is clear who is responsible for what.
For other families the choice for parents and grandparents to live together
may be less culturally determined. The situation may be to provide financial
or social support either for parents or grandparents and sometimes both. Neither
party may feel the situation is by choice, but by necessity.
In some of these cases, care of the young can become a battle between parents
Grandparents may overstep their bounds or feel the parents are inadequate.
Parents may feel the grandparents are intrusive or worse, harsh or abusive.
Having to rely on each other financially and/or a poor history between parents
and grandparents may keep either from addressing concerns forthrightly. Both
may be concerned that if they upset the applecart, all will lose something either
financially or supportively. Over time tensions may escalate and the conflict
may spill over into the care of the young. The young may learn to play parents
and grandparents against each other or in other situations may be subject to
inappropriate care themselves by either parents or grandparents.
In the 1970 and 1980’s there was a style of family therapy that concentrated
on these kinds of family problems and was known as structural family therapy.
A basic tenant of structural family therapy was that families are organized
in a hierarchy and that stepping outside the natural family hierarchy can give
rise to distress. In other words, parents should parent, grandparents should
support at the discretion of the parents. Indeed even when parents are inadequate,
when grandparents step in uninvited, problems and conflicts tend to escalate.
The challenge in these situations is to come up with a set of rules between
parents and grandparents that clearly stipulate roles, responsibilities and
acceptable child rearing practices. In family therapy terms this is partly referred
to as boundary formation.
Families unable to negotiate a set of rules themselves are advised to meet
with an experienced family therapist. The role of the therapist is to understand
and honor the family as a whole, including their living arrangements and then
to help them arrange themselves so that it is clear who is responsible for what
and what is acceptable with regard to the care of the young.
The process may be intimidating for some families, however the rationale makes
it worthwhile. Families attend counseling for the good of the young. Children
need parents and grandparents to have clear boundaries so they can operate within
the family rules too. Children find safety and security when family rules and
boundaries are clear and this reflects in happier, better-behaved kids.
Setting good boundaries doesn’t mean grandparents cannot have authority,
but their authority is best delivered and observed when provided forthrightly
by the parents. Where parents are struggling and grandparents can offer appropriate
support it may be wise to accept it in the interest of the young. Similarly
grandparents who have a tendency to overstep their bounds are cautioned that
their behavior doesn’t bring distress to the family. The one thing neither
parents or grandparents seem to want is conflict. This is often a good starting
point for dialogue, with or without a family therapist.