Grandparents are Overstepping Boundaries

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

My in-laws are insistant that they can buy whatever they want for my daughter (she is 22 months old) It has bothered me but I have kept the peace. For Easter they bought her a live baby bunny as a pet after my husband and I said no. They tried to give it to her at a time when my husband was not there. I refused their gift and my mother in law yelled at me saying they would not have rules as grandparents and would do whatever they wanted in front of my daughter. She stopped speaking to me after this and I wrote an email days later calling them disrespectful for buying a pet for my 1 year old after we said no. It has now been almost 2 months and MIL would not speak to us. I emailed to see what we needed to do to be a family again and she demanded I apologize to her or she wouldn’t get past this. I did and then she said she didn’t accept, continues to insist she will do whatever she wants and we are still not speaking. I want to get past this. But I want respect. If we (the parents) say no-no one has the right to do something against our wishes for our child. And I’m just talking things that are not appropriate for a child her age. They didn’t consider that we have 2 cats and a dog already in our home, or that we would be responsible for the expense of the bunny, that my daughter is not old enough to care or be responsible for a pet and therefore it falls on me. I’m sorry it hurt their feelings that we said no but its our my child. Can our realtionship be saved for the sake of my daughter?

A: Your in-laws are way out of line. As far as I can tell, you have done nothing wrong. You have the right to set reasonable boundaries around your in-laws’ relationship with your child. The important word is “reasonable.” It is certainly reasonable for you to not want another pet. You’re right that you would end up caring for it. It is not reasonable for your mother-in-law to think she can do and say anything she wants just because she is a grandmother. That entitlement doesn’t come with the job description.

Where is your husband in all of this? You shouldn’t be negotiating boundaries on your own. This is an important developmental milestone in the maturing of your own family. Your husband, their son, needs to be clearly on the same page with you. The two of you – together – need to decide what is in the best interests of your child. You need – together – to have a loving talk with your in-laws. You can certainly tell them that you appreciate their interest in your daughter. You can tell them how important it is for your daughter to have loving grandparents. But you can also tell them that it isn’t appropriate for them not to honor your role as your daughter’s parents. It isn’t at all supportive of your authority as parents if your daughter understands that she can always appeal to a “higher court,” her grandparents. It isn’t healthy for her to grow up with tension between the two generations of people who love her.

When you have this conversation, it’s important that you stay loving and clear, not angry. Engaging in an argument gives the impression that you can be talked out of your position. Supporting each other means staying clear and rational.

I sincerely hope that you and your husband can work together to resolve this situation. Often grandparents like these do back off when they realize that the younger couple really means it when they assert boundaries.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 31 May 2012

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2012). Grandparents are Overstepping Boundaries. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2012/05/31/grandparents-are-overstepping-boundaries/