Whoís in Charge Anyways?
By Gary Direnfeld,
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 honor 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 counseling 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
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