The joy of being a grandparent for many is rooted in all the ways it differs from being a parent.
Instead of facing the physically and emotionally exhausting daily challenges of parenting, grandparenting can be more casual and relaxed, emphasizing fun trips, sweet treats, and less pressure to discipline and correct behavior.
But as grandchildren grow up, grandparents might feel the urge to get involved at times when family dynamics are strained. After all, they have a different perspective that includes experience and first-hand knowledge of all the personalities involved.
But knowing when — and how — to get involved is crucial.
Considerable spoke to family therapists and psychologists to find out the best way, if at all, to intervene in an intense family dispute between a parent and child.
Go ask Grandma
Grandparents these days might feel compelled to get involved because of their own significant role in their grandchildren’s lives.
The benefits are mutual: Not only is having additional loving adults around important for children, studies show that spending regular time with a grandchild can actually increase the lifespan of a grandparent. Not to mention the crucial support a grandparent can offer a struggling and overburdened parent.
So maintaining a healthy dynamic with both your children and their children is super-important — but it can be difficult when those two are not getting along.
When to step in
So when should a grandparent feel compelled to get involved in a dispute or disagreement, and how should they proceed?
According to the experts we spoke to, assuming there is not physical or emotional abuse, it should be extremely rare and done with mindfulness.
Carrie Krawiec, a marriage and family therapist based in Troy, Michigan, had the following advice: “I think if they are invited by the child and grandchild, it would be OK to contribute — but if either expressed a desire for you not to be involved, that is a boundary that must be respected.
“If a grandparent proceeds when someone involved placed a limit, going further would damage that relationship.”
It’s important for grandparents to have perspective on the different role they play in each party’s life, and how that can make mediating hard.
“Grandparents should be aware of the dilemma they are in and make their children and grandchildren aware of this ‘dual relationship,'” Krawiec said. “By being made aware of intergenerational conflict, they are being invited beyond a boundary but also put in a situation where they are torn between allegiances and conflicting roles.”
Dr. Sherrie Campbell, a clinical psychologist based in Orange County, California, believes that bringing an issue to the parent first is important.
According to Campbell, “To be the most mindful, I think you should talk to your kids about their kids in private and in a non-activated time. If grandparents jump into the middle of a situation that stressful and try to manage the parenting, it’s going to cause more conflict.”
Easy does it
If a parent or grandchild does ask for a grandparent to become involved, that doesn’t mean it’s best to start immediately firing out suggestions and solutions.
Listening, and encouraging listening, should be a primary goal before you take any additional steps. Each party will likely feel sensitive to any perceived criticism or judgment, and it’s valuable for the grandparent to be as objective as possible.
Certainly some context is important here. These observations don’t apply to any family disputes or situations that involve abuse, neglect, or addiction, scenarios that can require law enforcement and legal expertise. Those situations should be handled entirely differently.
But when it comes to a grandparent trying to decide if they should quell a momentary flare-up, or sooth a tense but understandable dinnertime conversation, our experts have some clear advice: Stay out of it.
According to Dr. Campbell, “If a grandparent can be a decent mediator I think they can try, but on the whole I think grandparents should absolutely stay out of it and allow the conflicts between parent and child to happen — conflicts are natural between parents and their children.
“I feel that unless grandparents are invited into a larger role that they should not be trying to take one.”
So enjoy being a grandparent, in all the ways it differs from being a parent. And that often means letting somebody else handle it.