What to Do When Your Parents Undermine Your Parenting

Bringing kids into the world is exciting, but defending your parenting style to family and friends is not.

You likely live a very different lifestyle than your parents did at your age. Young adults today spend less time on meal preparation than older generations, often preferring to go out, pick up or order delivery. They are also less likely to ask their friends of family members for parenting advice, preferring to consult the internet for answers instead.

So of course, these younger parents are bound to make different decisions about raising their kids than their own parents did. But depending on the personalities of your parents and your partner’s parents, going your own way might be easier said than done.

Disagreements are inevitable

As a new parent, this transition means you’re suddenly making major decisions almost nonstop—whether to breastfeed or use formula, when to introduce new foods, whether you want to co-sleep, what religion to raise your child in, if they should get sweets after dinner or not, when and how much TV they can watch—and the last thing you want is criticism.

It’s hard enough coming to an agreement with your partner, but trying to explain your parenting choices to your parents (the child’s grandparents) can be difficult and exhausting. You don’t want to offend them, but just because they raised you doesn’t mean you have to agree with how they raised you. After all, times and best practices change.

Become a united front

Grandparents can weigh in on issues—and likely will—but, at the end of the day, “the parents need to be a united front,” psychotherapist Laura F. Dabney said.

Illustration of extended family hanging out in a living room. Parents Undermine Your Parenting pbs rewire
Grandparents should adapt their parenting style to fit yours, not institute their own.

You want your parents or in-laws “to see that you’re both on the same page with the issue,” said Heidi McBain, a marriage and family therapist and professional counselor.

Even if a grandparent is constantly making suggestions or comments (You shouldn’t use a pacifier. You shouldn’t feed them formula.) you need to stand your ground. This can be challenging if the grandparent is always visiting, hovering, calling or babysitting—and it can be extremely difficult when the helicopter grandparent is your partner’s parent and not your own.

Before lashing out or saying something hurtful, “discuss (the issue) with you partner and try to come up with some solutions together on how to best discuss the situation with your parent,” McBain said.

It’s up to the child of the grandparent to set boundaries with their own parents, Dabney said. In many cases, “the child-in-law has not had a long enough relationship with (their) in-laws to buffer or protect (them) against hurt feelings or misunderstandings.”

Set boundaries for your family

Confrontation can be hard. But, when it comes to your kids, communication is key.

“When you’re ready, sit down with (the in-laws) and let them know how you’re feeling,” McBain said. “Then actively listen to their response so they leave the conversation feeling heard and understood by you” and your partner.

The key is to be kind and respectful, but assertive. When confronting specific issues with parents or in-laws, Dabney suggests using this format: “I feel X when you do Y.” For example, “I feel anxious and inadequate when you criticize my parenting skills, so would you please not do that in the future.”

Grandparents need to understand that their role is grandparent, not parent. When a grandparent acts as a third parent and starts making decisions or ignoring household rules, this can undermine the parents and can affect their relationship with their children. The children can also get confused about what the rules actually are and who is in charge.

The parents are the rule-makers

Your parents may disagree with you on a quite a few parenting issues—from your child’s diet and bedtime to the way they’re disciplined and how many activities they participate in. But at the end of the day, how you and your partner choose to raise your kids is up to the two of you.

Grandparents should adapt their parenting style to fit yours, not institute their own.

“You want your kids to have consistency regardless of who is watching them,” McBain said.

So if a parent or in-law buys sugary cereal even though it’s not allowed in the house, or if they let your child watch a PG-13 movie before the child is allowed, that’s a problem. Any time a rule or expectation is shattered, this can cause unwanted stress between family members.

The goal is to unite the entire family. But if disagreements with your parents or in-laws threaten that, you will need to address the issues head on. If you don’t, resentment will likely build and “come back to haunt (you),” Dabney said.

Let your parents help out, but set clear boundaries.

“You’re the parent,” McBain said. “So, ultimately, you get to make the decisions about your kids. “But you want to hear where your parent is coming from as well.”

After all, they raised good kids themselves, didn’t they?

Sarah Sheppard

Sarah Sheppard is a freelance writer, editor and writing instructor. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University and is working on her first novel. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter or contact her at sarahsheppardwriter.com.