Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Overprotective Daughter-in-Law Limits Grandparents’ Access

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My husband and I are having a problem with our daughter-in-law Valerie. She and our son Don have two children, Robby, who is two, and Kaylee, who is almost four. Although we live near them, we see Robby and Kaylee infrequently, and when we do see them, Valerie gives us a set block of time that we have to arrange with her well in advance. For example, we can have lunch with them from 1 to 2 p.m. When we were last there, Kaylee especially was so glad to see us – “I want to sit next to Grandma!”

It’s the same for everyone: Valerie will not let the kids out of her sight. We have never been alone with either Robby or Kaylee, yet Valerie will complain to me on the phone how difficult it is to do the food shopping and other chores with the two kids with her. We constantly offer to baby sit, but she says no. We have tried to talk with Don about our wanting to spend time with the kids alone, but he defers to Valerie.

Our other son, who lives in another state, also has two kids and we are always welcome to spend time with them and to baby sit. We’re just not sure what we can do at this point about the situation with Valerie.

A basic challenge all parents face is finding the balance between helping their child develop into a responsible, independent, and appropriate risk taker, while keeping him/her emotionally and physically safe. It is not unusual that many new parents lean towards being overly cautious at first, but then they lighten up as they get more experience and confidence. Those parents are able to find a healthy balance between presenting the world as an exciting and wondrous place, but one that also requires sensible vigilance.

Alas, there are some parents who fall into the category of “overprotective parenting,” and your daughter-in-law may well be one. Those parents view the world as a dangerous place, live in constant fear that something bad is going to happen to their child, and can become overly protective in ways that interfere with their child’s healthy progression from dependence to independence. Former educator and principal Harvey Craft points out some early signs of overprotective parenting, including:

  • Immediately running to examine children when they have a simple fall that produces no distress; if a whimper is the worst result, the parent may have candy or a toy ready for comfort.
  • Having unnecessarily strict rules for children, such as remaining in the same room with the parent at all times, even at age five or six years.
  • Having strict rules of neatness that do not allow a child to get dirt on clothes or on the child.
  • Expectations that children understand adult rules of deference and demeanor and being quick to punish transgressions.
  • Discipline may be overly harsh for minor offenses.
  • Highly structured rules that try to cover every phase of a child’s life.
  • Over-emphasis of academic success.
  • Over-dependence on a system of rewards and punishments.

Underlying each of those signs is a parent’s need to maintain tight control over all situations, circumstances, behaviors, and outcomes involving his/her child – a tall, unrealistic, and unhealthy quest. If overprotective parenting continues, healthy and age-appropriate development can be jeopardized. Experts agree that the downside of overprotective parenting can produce children with these characteristics:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of confidence to try new things and branch out
  • Overly shy
  • Unable to cope with life’s challenges
  • Remain dependent on their parents into adulthood (Psychology Today published a notable article, “A Nation of Wimps,” that discusses the longer-term implications of overprotective parenting
  • Often develop anxiety disorders

You may find it informative to read some parents’ comments about the excessive fears they’ve had regarding their child’s well-being, as well as advice from other parents who have had similar fears. You may note that many of these parents experiencing these fears know their fears are overblown, unreasonable, and not healthy, either for themselves or their children, but they struggle or are unable to control them.

With the above background research and parents’ input in mind, here is my advice on how you might interact with Valerie in the future. First, I suggest you stop asking her if you can baby sit or be with Robby and Kaylee alone. Rather, I suggest you ask Valerie if you can join her, be with her, as she is trying to get errands done with the kids in tow.

Tell her you know how hard it is to manage two youngsters in stores, e.g., at the library, at the doctor’s office, and you want to make yourself available as an extra set of hands for her. Assure her that you will carefully follow all her instructions in helping her take care of them. Do not be surprised if she does not jump at your offer. Keep making this offer to accompany her; do not make an offer to baby sit. Keep reminding her that you will do whatever she needs you to do to help her with the kids. In time she may give you a trial run and let you accompany her on some short errand with her and the kids.

Over time she may come to trust you enough to leave the room for a few minutes while you’re with the children alone. Hopefully, she will feel comfortable enough to increase the amount of time she will leave you alone with your grandchildren. You may find she opens up a bit with you and makes statements such as, “I know I’m a bit of a worry wart when it comes to letting the kids out of my sight.”

As tempting as it might be to agree with her and talk about how she might be hindering the kids, your job is to help her share her feelings. You might say something along these lines: “Just tell me how I can help.” Don’t be judgmental or lecture her: just be a good listener, and respond in supportive ways. As mentioned above, many overprotective parents know they have problems and want to be less protective, and sometimes just verbalizing their concerns and fears to “safe” ears is the first step to making changes.

My final suggestion is that you alone approach her about helping her with the kids while on errands, and not include your husband. It might be overwhelming for her at first to contend with you, your husband, and the kids at the same time. Once you’re in her comfort zone, you can test the waters with her about your husband joining you.

Even though they don’t verbalize them, your grandchildren may already be sensitive to their mom’s fears, so your calm presence helping their mom take care of them can make a huge difference in their lives, as well as in Valerie’s life.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

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