Grandparents can play a significant role in children's lives by fostering a strong sense of family and positive self-worth. Yet some parents find themselves trying to protect their children from the very people who are supposed to dote on them.
Dealing with bullying grandparents can be tricky, because it often involves a conflict between values. Grandparents can be a valuable resource on parenting with their years of experience, but not all will accept that parents have the ultimate say on how their children will be raised.
Some older generations will believe that you show respect by being submissive. Parents are often torn between wanting to protect their children, yet feeling an obligation to be respectful to their own parents and preserve the relationship by letting comments slide.
For some, watching their parents belittle their own grandchildren stirs up old wounds from childhood. Kat, who is mum to four-year-old Zoe, says "my whole life I was told to suck my tummy in", a message she doesn't want passed on to Zoe. Kat says that her mother "uses some really creative, passive-aggressive ways to let me know that she doesn't approve of [her] parenting". Kat says that if her mother sees Zoe snacking she'll say things like "someone is greedy" or "do you really think she should be eating that?" Kat believes some of this is cultural. "In Korean culture, we can get a bit obsessed about weight". She says that her mother doesn't think twice about discussing weight in front of Zoe, because to her it's normal. However, Kat says "it's a fine line between deciding what is someone's cultural view and what's just plain rude".
For others, like Alexis, they find that their parents' bullying is far more direct.
Alexis chooses to have less contact with her father because of the way he bullies her children. She doesn't want them to experience the same emotional invalidation that she felt growing up. Alexis says when her children are upset, her father calls them 'cry-babies' and when they are angry, he tells them they are 'brats'. When they are grumpy, he 'mocks' them by imitating their voices instead of trying to comfort them. Alexis says "I feel my children's behaviour deteriorates under constant criticism from their grandfather, and [they are] more willing to call each other names after seeing [him]."
Bullying in families is often intergenerational, and some adults have the unhelpful habit of defining children by their behaviour instead of separating the person from their behaviour. For example, the child who is labelled as a 'naughty boy', rather than just a normal child who, like all kids, made some poor decisions.
Alexis says that "sadly, [her father] genuinely believes that bullying is the correct way to raise kids and to hug and comfort a child who is upset spoils them". Some people may feel that experiences of criticism or rejection create resilience, but research clearly indicates that the majority of us respond much better to praise.
Tips for managing grandparents' bullying
This may be your earliest opportunity to show, rather than tell your child how to respond to bullying. Try not to send your child mixed messages by telling them it's not okay for another child to call them a name, but then showing them that you'll turn a blind eye if their grandparent does the same thing.
Try to avoid arguments that get into cultural and generational expectations as these often won't get resolved. Instead, focus on what it is that you value in your family unit and always refer back to it ("in our family we build people up, not put them down").
Be assertive in front of your child, but keep it simple by using statements that are difficult to follow up with disagreement. For example, "You've upset Johnny" easily leads to "No I didn't!" whereas statements like "Mum, in our family we don't put each other down" are often more useful.
Find a moment with your child to correct any negative messages – "What Poppy said about you being a wimp isn't true. In our family, crying is okay".
Explain to your parent why their behaviour is hurtful. Give them a chance to apologise, but if you continually experience invalidation then don't be afraid to set boundaries.
You don't need to make excuses for your parent or explain their bullying behaviour. Sometimes we can't explain why people are cruel because there really isn't any explanation which makes the behaviour acceptable. Instead, put your energy into showing and telling your child how much they are loved by you.
Encourage healthy friendships with other older adults. The older generation have so much to offer in terms of nurturing and knowledge, but sometimes you have to make your own family.
*names have been changed to protect privacy