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When a Relative Interferes

How To Handle Relatives Who Interfere

When Grandma tells Junior that she completely disagrees with your latest discipline, you know she really means well. After all, she loves her grandkids and it's her job to spoil them -- right? Well, maybe.

Even grandparents and extended family members who have your best interest in mind can sometimes wreak havoc on your marriage and relationships with your children. So how do you handle their interference without hurting feelings or prompting a family feud?

It may be helpful to understand these situations more clearly.

Three's a Crowd

"Triangulation is when two people's relations are affected by a third person," says Dr. Francis Chiappa, a clinical psychologist with Horizons Counseling Services in Cleveland, Ohio. Chiappa teaches couples that when they got married, they weren't just bringing together two individuals, but two family structures. It's a challenge to merge these families because of their different traditions and views on subjects such as discipline, education and religion, he says. "More often, the families will clash in one or more of these areas."

Communication Survival Skills

Assume that Grandma and Grandpa want to buy your kids a television for their bedroom as a gift. For a variety of reasons, you don't want your children to have a television in their room. Chiappa offers these suggestions to tactfully handle this situation:

Present a United Front.

Chiappa uses the Family Systems Theory, which encourages couples to strengthen their relationship so they're not caught in the middle. "You must present a united front in confronting a relative," he says. "It's important for both of you to 'be on the same page' with an issue."

Let the blood relative be the messenger.

If Grandma and Grandpa Jones are your parents, you get the honor of informing them of you and your wife's feelings on the issue. "An in-law is sometimes thought of as an outsider," Chiappa says. "If an in-law is complaining, that makes him or her the 'bad guy.'"

Don't talk about your spouse to relatives.

While it may be difficult to avoid discussing your spouse with your family, Chiappa emphasizes how damaging it can be. "When you confide in relatives on these matters, you're actually encouraging them to interfere," he says. "A classic mistake would be to confront your relatives and say 'I don't want you to give our kids a TV because my spouse doesn't want it.' This allows a wedge to be driven between your spouse and the relatives."

David Watroba of Sagamore Hills, Ohio is the father of two daughters, ages 6 and 4. As one of six siblings who all live within a 20-mile radius, he's frequently with relatives and has developed effective ways to deal with interference. "Usually I'll tell them that I appreciate their opinion to acknowledge them. This usually diffuses a fight," he says. "Then I'll say something like 'But this is what we've decided to do.'"

However, if a relative gives advice or interferes in front of Watroba's children, he employs another method. "When the kids aren't around I'll again tell them that I appreciate their opinion, but I'll ask them to refrain from discussing it in front of my kids in the future."

Gary Gall, a father of two from Maple Heights, Ohio, sometimes reminds relatives that "kids will be kids," especially if a discipline issue comes up. "Often grandparents don't realize that times are different today and kids are going to be different, too," he says. "Sometimes they think it's still 1955 or 1960."

Relatives Who are Also Caregivers

The way you handle an interfering relative may also depend on special situations. You may address the issue differently if, for example, your mother-in-law watches your kids on a regular basis while you and your spouse work.

Because of increased contact with both you and your child, relatives who baby-sit may be more inclined to let their opinions on childrearing be known.

Since they provide something you need -- namely, child care -- you should decide how much input you will put up with. "If your views on child care are in conflict a little, you may be able to tolerate it," Chiappa says. "If they are in conflict a lot, you have to look at your options. Ask yourself if you can live with these differences or if you're willing to make some compromises."

Single Dads

Being a single dad often attracts more wanted or unwanted relative input. "Single parents are more prone to this type of interference because they tend to need their families more," Chiappa says.

Darnell Carter, a family life educator in Cleveland, Ohio, works a lot with fathering groups composed of single dads. He advises these dads to look at possible reasons for a relative's interfering. "I encourage a dad to ask himself if he's acted like a man who will take care of his responsibilities to his children," he says.

Carter also finds that fulfilling basic responsibilities -- like showing up for your children when you're supposed to and staying employed -- will give relatives less need to interfere.

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