Harriet Lerner Ph.D.

The Dance of Connection

If You Love Your Kid, Be Kind to the Grandparents

An unhappy bond with grandparents? Kids may suffer.

Posted Dec 01, 2019

When a child enters the picture, every family relationship is called upon to change.

Kids raise the stakes for how you treat your kin, especially parents and in‐laws. Your behavior is your children’s blueprint for family and will influence how you get treated when they grow up. How you navigate these adult relationships is the most important legacy that you leave your children. They are watching you.

Kids want nothing more than for all the important adults in their life to get along. If, for example, the tension is high between you and your mother‐in‐law, little Hannah is caught in a triangle. She will not be able to figure out her own relationship with her grandmother, free from the tension between the adults. Kids need their grandparents, even if they see them infrequently and no matter what you might think of these people. And they are especially attuned to how their parents treat their own parents.

Nor can you fool your kids just by biting your tongue and pretending to be civil. If you’re silently seething because your mother‐in‐law has brought eleven‐year‐old Jason an electronic game, after you’ve told her “nothing electronic,” Jason will pick up on the tension. Even little children have radar for disturbances in the emotional field, and some are more sensitive than others. You may have one child who can let emotional intensity between adults float by her, and another who absorbs it like a sponge.

Always aim to lower your own intensity with the grandparents. Being calm and kind to grandparents is not the same as having an “anything goes” policy. To the contrary, you each need to deal directly with your own parents, when they habitually do something at the expense of someone in your household or violate your ground rules. That is, you can tell your mother to respect the “no electronic games” rule, even if it’s your wife who has the strong feelings about it. Of course she can be the one to speak up to your in‐laws and be "the heavy"—but she  may not  get far if you disappear from the fray and let her be the spokesman and emotional reactor to  your parents unacceptable behavior.

Watch out for this common triangle: two women (wife and mother‐in‐law) have the “problem relationship” while the man stays out of the action. Triangles obscure the real conflicts, which makes it impossible to identify and resolve them. For example, the mother‐in‐law is actually angry about her son’s distance, although she targets  his wife. The wife is actually angry that her husband doesn’t speak up to his own mother, but this marital issue stays underground because she targets her mother‐in‐law. while he stays outside the ring just wishing that his wife and mother would get along. 

Wherever you find a wife and mother‐in‐law slugging it out, you’ll find a son who’s not speaking up to either his own mother. If you change your part in this triangle it will have positive ripple effects through your marriage and every family relationship. 

In sum: If you love your kid be kind to your kin, especially the grandparents. You may need to take a difficult position with a difficult family member but remember, anything that needs to be said can be said with kindness.