Whoís in Charge Anyways?
By Gary Direnfeld, MSW,
Itís not uncommon to find parents and grandparents
living together with everyone minding the young. In fact, by many
cultures, this is a very normal situation that works well for
everyone. It tends to work best when everyone knows his or her place
and it is clear who is responsible for what.
For other families the choice for parents and
grandparents to live together may be less culturally determined. The
situation may be to provide financial or social support either for
parents or grandparents and sometimes both. Neither party may feel the
situation is by choice, but by necessity.
In some of these cases, care of the young can become a
battle between parents and grandparents.
Grandparents may overstep their bounds or feel the
parents are inadequate. Parents may feel the grandparents are
intrusive or worse, harsh or abusive. Having to rely on each other
financially and/or a poor history between parents and grandparents may
keep either from addressing concerns forthrightly. Both may be
concerned that if they upset the applecart, all will lose something
either financially or supportively. Over time tensions may escalate
and the conflict may spill over into the care of the young. The young
may learn to play parents and grandparents against each other or in
other situations may be subject to inappropriate care themselves by
either parents or grandparents.
In the 1970 and 1980ís there was a style of family
therapy that concentrated on these kinds of family problems and was
known as structural family therapy. A basic tenet of structural family
therapy was that families are organized in a hierarchy and that
stepping outside the natural family hierarchy can give rise to
distress. In other words, parents should parent, grandparents should
support at the discretion of the parents. Indeed even when parents are
inadequate, when grandparents step in uninvited, problems and
conflicts tend to escalate.
The challenge in these situations is to come up with a
set of rules between parents and grandparents that clearly stipulate
roles, responsibilities and acceptable child rearing practices. In
family therapy terms this is partly referred to as boundary formation.
Families unable to negotiate a set of rules themselves
are advised to meet with an experienced family therapist. The role of
the therapist is to understand and honour the family as a whole,
including their living arrangements and then to help them arrange
themselves so that it is clear who is responsible for what and what is
acceptable with regard to the care of the young.
The process may be intimidating for some families,
however the rationale makes it worthwhile. Families attend counselling
for the good of the young. Children need parents and grandparents to
have clear boundaries so they can operate within the family rules too.
Children find safety and security when family rules and boundaries are
clear and this reflects in happier, better-behaved kids.
Setting good boundaries doesnít mean grandparents
cannot have authority, but their authority is best delivered and
observed when provided forthrightly by the parents. Where parents are
struggling and grandparents can offer appropriate support it may be
wise to accept it in the interest of the young. Similarly grandparents
who have a tendency to overstep their bounds are cautioned because
this behavior can bring distress to the family. The one thing neither
parents or grandparents seem to want is conflict. This is often a good
starting point for dialogue, with or without a family therapist.
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