Family dynamics can be notoriously tricky to navigate. From intergenerational trauma to in-law drama, it’s easy to rock the boat (and far less so to steady it). When you start adding generations, it can make the tension even worse.
One way this phenomenon manifests is dueling grandparents. Two sets of grandparents can quickly become competitive, even to the point where they use their grandchildren as proxies in their confrontations.
Whether you’ve experienced this as a child, an adult child with your own kids, or a grandparent, you likely know how devastating its effects can be. Battling grandparents bring a sense of discomfort and animosity to family relationships, which children can carry with them long into adulthood.
Dueling Grandparents Is Common For A Number Of Reasons
According to Dr. Luz Casquejo Johnston, teacher and parenting coach, battling grandparents are both common and understandable.
“Grandmothers naturally have less time with their grandchildren unless they are living with them,” she explains. “Based on geographic proximity or other factors, one grandmother may have more access to the little ones.”
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“Compounding this may be the relationship grandma has with her child or her in-law,” Johnston continues. “Children are sensitive to friction and can always tell how adults feel. Unfortunately, they don’t have the experience to actually name what is going on, so they tend to stay away or shy away from the grandma who they sense has friction with one of their parents.”
Grandparents “duel” in a number of ways. It can be as blatant as the grandparents speaking poorly about or to each other in front of the family. They might also compete with who can offer the most gifts, money, or quality time. It can also be passive or manipulative: using guilt trips, silent treatments, or otherwise to express their disdain.
What Fuels Your Parents And In-Laws To Compete
Ronnie Adamowicz, a clinical psychotherapist, says cases of battling grandparents always boil down to purpose.
“Typically, when grandparents are no longer parents and retired, they need something to live for. Moving their energies to their grandchildren is extremely common and often a healthy, natural stage of their life.”
In addition to craving a sense of purpose, sets of grandparents are also navigating different socioeconomic backgrounds, cultures, religions, and more.
“These factors affect the grandparents’ closeness with their grandchildren,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Lauren Cook-McKay. “This can be uncomfortable and cause envy, insecurity, and jealousy.”
While some families might excel in open communication, others are not so fortunate. And if you are currently dealing with feuding parents and in-laws, there’s a good chance your clan falls in the latter category.
How To Deal With Battling Grandparents
There is no one simple solution to this matter, but there are a few tips the experts I spoke to offered.
1. The Only Side You Should Take Is Your Child’s
Johnston offers this succinct advice to parents:
“First and foremost, you are on the side of your children. Pay attention to and find out specifically how this feels to the child and do your best to keep them out of the crossfire. This has very little to do with them and everything to do with the adults in their lives.”
2. Remind Your Parents Or In-Laws Your Child’s Needs Come First
And in that same vein, natural mothering expert and founder of AllNaturalMothering, Nancy Arulraj, emphasizes the importance of reminding the grandparents of this, too.
“One way to prevent grandparents from competing with one another is to encourage them to focus on their grandchildren’s needs and desires rather than their own.”
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3. Focus On Education And Reconciliation
Adamowicz uses a two-step process to help his clients’ grandparents. The first is psychoeducational.
“Inform the grandparents that this behavior only serves to hurt the grandchild. Typically, this is called triangulation, where grandparents’ animosity ends up with the child being used as a proxy weapon against the other. Children absorb this more than we may like to think.”
The second is reconciliation.
“If possible, have the grandparents talking to one another. The more they communicate and make peace with one another, the more harmony results with their child.”
4. Stand Your Ground
Additionally, Adamowicz recommends setting firm boundaries (e.g. no bickering or power games), avoiding favoring, and working on healing your relationship with your parents or in-laws.
“When the relationship between the adult parents is healed, often the grandparents’ resentment may dissipate as well,” Adamowicz explains.
5. A Word For Grandparents
Finally, the founder of FindBlackTherapist, E.L. Forestal, offers critical advice to grandparents currently in conflict.
“Try to have realistic expectations about your relationship with your grandchildren,” Forestal begins. “Just because you didn’t get the chance to spend a lot of time with them when they were younger doesn’t mean that you can’t have a close and meaningful relationship with them now.”
“Try to avoid comparisons between yourself and other grandparents. It’s natural to want to be the favorite, but comparing yourself to others will only make you feel worse. Finally, focus on the quality of your time with your grandchildren, not the quantity. Even if you can’t spend as much time with them as you’d like, you can still create lasting memories and build a strong bond.”