Help Me Sara – How to deal with overbearing relatives


If you live in the same city as your parents or siblings, you may have experienced the benefits of having family support close by. You may also be all too familiar with the drawbacks of well intentioned relatives overstepping boundaries that are not always easy to enforce when the babysitters come for free. When the person watching your children is being paid, you can leave a list of detailed instructions. If your rules are ignored, you may choose to look for someone else who respects your wishes. However, a to-do list for grandparents may be met with “Don’t you think we know what to do? We raised three children, you know!”

If allowing your children and their relatives bonding time – and saving some bucks – outweighs the issue of boundaries, you may have learned to bite your tongue and only leave instructions when absolutely necessary, such as when your child needs to take medication.

But there are other issues that can arise. You may feel undermined when your parents or an aunt or uncle (often with no kids of their own) collude with your children by going behind your back. Or sometimes they will blatantly say yes to your child’s demands when you have already said no.

When your mother or mother-in-law, for example, says “Oh come on, let him have a chocolate. How can that harm him?” and then winks at your child, this may be her way of playing good cop Grandma against your bad cop parent. Your parent or in-law may not be thinking about how you feel when she goes against you, or the long-term consequences of your child not being able to hear ‘no’. At that very moment, all she is thinking about is connecting with her grandchild.

Another reason that close relatives may oppose your wishes is because their behaviour is being triggered by something you are saying or doing. So, if your sister, for example, feels that you have always been the bossy sibling, she may side with her nephew against what she perceives as your bossy stance.

First, communicate your feelings to your relatives. If there has been friction between you for many years, then undermining, disrespecting and not caring may be a natural outgrowth of previous unresolved issues. However, if friction has evolved only since you became a parent, then communicating your feelings may be easier.

Tell your parents that although you appreciate their desire to connect by showering your child with lots of gifts, for example, that your family values are more about experiences than material possessions. Share how their behaviour makes you feel and what you’re trying to accomplish over the long run with your child. If you feel that your parents are going against the rules you have set up in your home, ask them why and help them understand why your rules work for you and how much you’d appreciate their support.

Second, listen to their side. Perhaps it’s okay to occasionally turn a blind eye when your sister buys your child a large ice cream sundae even though you usually only buy a small. Help your children understand that your rules haven’t changed even when other people’s rules are different, but that you’re okay with the occasional exception. Remember that if your child expects his grandparents will always bring a gift, for example, and is disappointed the one time they forget, this is their problem to work through with your child. Then, it will really take a lot of willpower to bite your tongue and refrain from saying “I told you so!”

Tips through the ages

Baby & toddler

Different parenting philosophies emerge early. Do your parents respond to your child’s crying more readily than you? Do they pick him up at the first sign of distress? Be confident in your choices and set the tone in your house so your parents will follow your lead.

Preschool & school age

Enter the gifts. As children become older, grandparents may enjoy bestowing treats, toys and clothes on your little one at every turn. Soon your child is expecting gifts for every milestone or on every trip to the mall. Emphasize to your parents that material gifts aren’t necessary and in fact become meaningless in such quantities. Instead, gifts of time and experience are more valued.

Tween & teen

As kids hit their rebellious years, they are often in need of an ally. Family members can provide a sympathetic alternative to mom or dad. And that’s good, to a point. If your relatives have your child’s best interest at heart, enlist them as part of your child’s “team”. Don’t expect them to betray your child’s confidence, but if they know you expect them to look out for your child, they’ll be more like an extra parent.

Sara Dimerman is a psychologist, author and parenting expert in the Greater Toronto Area. Read more at helpmesara.com.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February 2014.

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