Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Grandparents’ Favoritism Is Upsetting Young Parents

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My husband and I have two sons, a four-year old, and a two-and-a-half-year old. We are dealing with some grandparent favoritism issues. My husband’s parents will drop everything for their daughter’s family (who has two kids, three and six), but my family and kids always seem to come second.

For example, after my husband and I planned an afternoon blessing ceremony for my younger son at church and sent out the invitations, my in-laws and sister-in-law planned a dinner just for them and told us we could join them, if we wanted. Their dinner started while our event was still going on, so they left our son’s blessing early. When they left early, my older son asked why they left because he saw my parents were still there. Another example is that my in-laws plan family vacations with my sister-in-law and her husband and then tell us the dates that are set for the vacation.

My husband lightly broached the subject of their favoritism by saying it seemed like they spent more time with his sister’s kids than with our kids and that he didn’t want our kids to start noticing that kind of thing. They told him that they knew that their time with the two sets of grandchildren was imbalanced, but that they didn’t know how to fix it necessarily because, they said, his sister’s kids’ schedules were just more flexible.

Fortunately, my parents’ relationship with my children is essentially like they are second parents. My children call my mom ‘Mama,’ so that says it all. My parents give my kids unconditional love and respect and support all of the decisions we make for them. If there’s an event happening for either one of our children, my parents wait patiently and keep their schedules open so they can participate in whatever we plan.

So, regarding my in-laws, how do we move forward? We have tried communicating our boundaries and needs, but it doesn’t seem to be heard, ever. Is it okay if we distance ourselves from the in-laws? Do we communicate why we have distanced ourselves? We don’t want a big moment to explode by communicating, but we are at a loss of what to do.

Although it is not uncommon for mothers to feel closer and more comfortable with their grown daughters when they become young parents, such special closeness should be transparent when it comes to the grandchildren. No grandchild should be correct in feeling his grandparents favor some grandchildren over others.

It pains me to say that based on the above examples, as well as numerous others you shared with me that space precludes from including here, it seems clear that your in-laws do put a higher priority on being with their other grandchildren’s family over being with your family.

Your husband tried talking with his parents about his fear that his sons would be aware of their preference, and although they acknowledged the imbalance, it doesn’t feel to you that they are motivated to equalize the imbalance. Understandably, you and your husband are obviously distressed by this and worry about your sons feeling that their cousins are more valued than they are by their paternal grandparents.

I want to suggest that it is time for you and your husband to stop being reactive to what his parents and his sister do and say – you need to be more proactive. By that I mean that the first thing you want to do is stop expending energy on all the ways you are consistently hurt and disappointed: accept that your in-laws and your sister-in-law are not going to change.

Rather, put your energy into planning and scheduling activities and events that are convenient for you and your family. This letting go of wishing things were different can be an important first step for you to feel emotionally liberated; most important, it puts you in charge of your family life.

By all means, extend invitations to your husband’s side of the family, if you care to, with the expectation that your invitations will probably not be acceptable on your terms. Be flexible, if that works for you. Otherwise, when things start to get complicated, you simply say that you are sorry they cannot be part of what you have planned.

Focus on your kids and surrounding them with family and friends who truly want to be part of what you have planned and want to help make your kids feel loved and supported. You know you can count on your parents. And maybe it is time to reach out to other families you’ve met in your community with whom you share interests and values, and begin spending time with them.

As your boys get older and express that they feel their paternal grandparents seem to prefer being with their cousins over them, or they point out that the cousins seem to get more and nicer presents from the grandparents than they receive, I suggest that you don’t try to dissuade them from their observations or make excuses or sugar-coat things. Rather, empathize with them.

Here are some suggestions for what you might say to your boys: “I understand why you are feeling hurt and left out. I would feel the same way if I thought my grandparents seemed to prefer spending more time with my cousins than with me. I wish it felt different to you, but it is what it is. All we can do is try to be nice to Grandma and Grandpa, even though they hurt your feelings. It is what it is.” Or, “It does seem they spend more time with your cousins than they do with you, but all we can do is enjoy whatever time we have with them.” Or, “Grandma and Grandpa said they have some scheduling conflicts, so they won’t be staying as long as we had hoped [or won’t be attending at all].”

Your question about vacations: vacations are supposed to be fun. If the thoughts of vacationing with certain people cause you stress and anxiety, then kindly decline and plan vacations you take with just your boys or with those with whom a good time will be had by all.

One additional suggestion is that you plan separate activities with your in-laws and your sister-in-law. You know from experience that if everyone is together, your sons will take a back seat to their cousins. Perhaps your boys will get the attention they deserve from your in-laws if their cousins aren’t there.

I agree that you don’t need to go into explanations with your in-laws or sister-in-law: just live your lives, extend invitations on your terms, and let the chips fall where they may. If you don’t dwell on your disappointments caused by certain family members, your kids won’t either. If you accept the way things are and concentrate on all the loving and supportive relationships in your lives, your kids will, too.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

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Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts

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