To nurture your family, nurture yourself

Parents and grandparents need one another. How can they learn to get along?

To find out, I interviewed Patricia Pitta, Ph.D., who’s been practicing family therapy on Long Island for more than 30 years and is the author of a new book, Solving Modern Family Dilemmas.

When a conflict arises, “approach each other with respect,” Pitta urges.

“Listen to each other; respond in a non-angry, thoughtful way; and look to negotiate and make compromises.”

Dr. Pitta holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Fordham University, teaches at St. John's University, and is the author of a new textbook on family therapy.

Dr. Pitta holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Fordham University, teaches at St. John’s University, and is the author of a new textbook on family therapy.

And above all, know yourself: who you are, what you want, and what your limits are.

“You have to stand by what you believe in and hold close to it if it’s that important to you.”

“Remember not to lose yourself, because if you lose yourself, you become anxious, you become angry, you become depressed, and you resent,” she says.

“And it’s going to end up in not a very pretty place.”

Here’s our whole conversation:

What kinds of conflicts are you seeing between parents and grandparents these days?

Really simple ones. Power, control—the good old normal ones.

Parents want to reap the benefits of the [babysitting] services from the grandparents, but many times they want to control what the grandparents do when the grandparents are with the kids.

And some grandparents will agree and conform, while others will put up a battle and fight.

But many times that war is really about the adult children with their parents continuing their war from childhood. So now it’s just being continued in this new generation and the new roles.

I can give you an example. Many times, working parents will talk about how the child comes home from school and refuses to listen to Grandma or Grandpa. And the child calls Mom or Dad on the phone and, in a way, Mom or Dad is giving the child the license not to listen to Grandma or Grandpa.

Because the child is calling Mom or Dad on the phone to get a different answer from what Grandma or Grandpa is saying?

Right. And so I need to help people look at that and see that and really give the power to the grandparent when they’re with the child. Otherwise, it’s just a war.

I’m hearing about some power struggles over food and sweets.
For example, one working mother told me that she and her husband could never get by without both of their fathers, who take the kids to school in the morning and fill in after the babysitter goes home. But she said both grandpas are giving the kids a lot of sugar between and after meals, not the healthy stuff that she leaves for their snacks.
And she’d turn a blind eye if the grandpas were watching the kids just once a month or once a week, but they’re there almost every day.

Has she tried to speak to them?

Yes, but she’s treaded lightly because she’s worried about offending them. She’s so grateful to them, and she’s so dependent on them.

She’s so dependent on them.

It sounds like … I don’t know if she’s really had the conversation that she needs to have with them to try to set some boundaries around what she needs. And since they’re there four or five days a week, they’re a big influence in the children’s lives.

Dr. Pitta's textbook on family therapy was published by Routledge last year.

Dr. Pitta’s textbook on family therapy was published by Routledge last year.

And I think she would need to sit down with them separately—not together—and just tell them about her gratitude and how grateful she is for all they’re doing, but that she really doesn’t want the children to eat so much sugar.

And maybe she could even get some support from her medical doctor … Are the children overweight at all?

No.

Are they going that direction?

No, I don’t think so.

Are the grandparents really giving them so many excess treats or is it just a cookie or two?

Some people don’t want their children to have any treats. It’s hard for me to comment on that, because to have a cookie or two after lunch and dinner, what’s the crime?

If the children are not diabetic, if the children are not overweight, if the children are not gaining weight … the children maybe need that and could still have the apples and the grapes and whatever else.

In that family the grandpas are happy to be doing lots of childcare, but many grandparents I’ve met are feeling pressure to babysit more days each week than they really want to. Some are even feeling pressure to quit their jobs so they can babysit more. Is this something you’re seeing?

Yes. There’s a need to get these children cared for, and if there is a grandparent around who is a possibility and who is available, the adult children want to jump on it.

But sometimes, how available a grandparent is becomes a point of dispute. Some grandparents could afford to retire but choose to keep working, and the adult children get frustrated by that.

It’s really not about the adult children; it’s about the grandparents. They have to know who they are, what they want, and know their boundaries. They have to set them—set their limitations—and then deal with the emotional fallout that comes from it.

So your kids might be saying to you, “Gosh, I really could use that third day. It would free up my life, I wouldn’t have to get the sitter, I wouldn’t have to pay another $200 a day.”

And you could say, “I really understand that you could really use my help that extra day, but I really can’t do it.”

“There’s a need to get these children cared for, and if there is a grandparent around who is a possibility and who is available, the adult children want to jump on it.”

The kid will say, “What do you have to do? You’ve got nothing to do; you’re just hanging around the house.”

Many times I will coach grandparents to say, “You might see it as me doing nothing, but this is what I need to do at this point. I’m 60-whatever, I’m 70-whatever; this is what I need to do now. I really love to be with your children, but also I need to take care of me at this point in my life. And this is taking care of me—having just free time … Maybe you think I’m doing nothing, but for me, it’s doing something.”

What if that makes the adult child angry?

Too bad. Then the grandparent has to deal with somebody being angry at them and still stay within their limits and boundaries.

Otherwise, they’re going to lose themselves to their child, and they’re going to be angry and furious on top of it. So the grandparent is going to become angry and furious, they’re giving all this extra time that they didn’t want to, and nobody is going to be grateful.

And it’s going to end up in not a very pretty place.

Do you see that happening?

Sure. When is enough enough? When is good enough good enough?

And a lot of grandparents, they’re looking back to when they were raising kids and they’re saying, “Somehow we made it without much help from our parents.” It was a different time and a different world, when parents, especially mothers, were home more and struggling less.

I’d say the young people today have a different mentality because of the way … they were brought up differently. Our children were brought up differently. They were more entitled, they got more things.

So you think there’s been a cultural shift?

Yes, there’s a contextual shift in what young parents expect sometimes from their families.

This is true when it comes to money, also. Not necessarily because of the way today’s young people were brought up, but because so many of them are struggling financially relative to their parents, the grandparents.
So grandparents are helping parents buy their homes and pay for private schools, summer camps, and other extras—the kind of big-ticket items that a generation ago, parents could afford themselves.
I think many parents consider this help a salvation, but it’s leading to some tricky conflicts.

Like what?

Here’s an example. I know a couple who gave their son and daughter-in-law the down payment for their house in another state.
And this couple would like to stay with their son and his family when they visit, mostly to get more time with their grandkids, but they’ve been told there’s not enough room. So they stay in a hotel, but they’re not happy about that.

One very important rule, and I tell this to everyone, is this: the minute you give a gift, you give it away. It has no strings and no expectations; that is the definition of a gift.

So if these grandparents are being resentful because they gave this gift and the adult children do not want them to stay in the house, whatever their reasons are, the grandparents have to work that out [and accept it].

“The minute you give a gift, you give it away. It has no strings and no expectations; that is the definition of a gift.”

The definition of a gift is, “This is for you, with no strings attached.” A gift with conditions—the conditions need to be stated.

Do you think it’s okay to give a gift with conditions to a family member?

Anything is okay as long as both parties are on board. But if there are conditions of a gift, you have to state what they are.

You can’t just assume that because you’re giving your child a down payment that you are welcome in their house all the time or even once a year. It’s their home.

Remember, the definition of a gift: it’s yours with no conditions.

Do you often find yourself telling this to people?

Absolutely.

This is an important point, because the reality in so many families today is that parents depend on gifts from grandparents to maintain their standard of living.

It could work well if the conditions of the gift are well understood, and limits and boundaries are drawn and are present in the relationship—where both generations have freedom to be themselves and then join together and enjoy their relationship. There should be no problem with it.

It’s only when somebody puts an expectation on a gift that has not been defined or is not agreed upon by both generations …

So if a grandparent is helping to pay for camp, say, and the grandparent wants input on which camp the kid goes to, the grandparent has to say that.

Of course. “I will pay for this camp but I need to be able to have input.” Then the adult child will figure out—do they want the grandparent to have that kind of say?

“Individuals need to to know what they want and what they’re willing to give. And still hold on to their own identity.”

It always goes back to boundaries and knowing yourself, and knowing what it is that you want.

You mean for the grandparent?

For the grandparents, yes. I’ll use a bigger word, it’s how “individuated” or differentiated are they …

Individuated from their families?

Individuals need to to know what they want and what they’re willing to give. And still hold on to their own identity.

They need to know what they want to give as opposed to what other people want them to give?

Exactly.

The more individuated you are, the better?

Yes. The more individuated you are, the better—because you will make healthier choices without an emotional price, because you have signed up for that.

“I’m going to give this $20,000 for the child’s education; it’s a gift; do with it what you want.”

Or, “I’m going to give you this $20,000, and I have to pick the school.”

That sounds a little rigid.

It doesn’t matter. Who am I to judge?

I don’t judge people. Everybody has to decide what is their way that they want to see life.

And if the [adult] child then takes that money … and then goes off and does what he or she wants with it, it’s going to be a problem because the rules were set quite clear, and that’s where the problem comes in.

In some families, of course, grandparents are helping parents by letting them move back home, either temporarily or for the long haul.
I’ve noticed that a lot of grandparents are really happy to do this, but then there are problems negotiating the specifics.

Which specifics?

For example, one grandmother I met had her son, her daughter-in-law, and their toddler living in her very well-kept home for a while so they could save up for their own place.
She said she was glad to have them, but that she was frustrated by all the chaos: the mess of toys, the sitters coming and going. How would you recommend a grandparent handle a situation like that?

Are their expectations realistic? I would want to know, if they were seeing me, what are the their expectations and then are they really realistic?

If you have a little kid around, you’re going to have toys. Do you have a place that you can designate as the area of the house for the toys? If you don’t have that place, then they’re going to take over your living room or whatever, so you would have to be able to set boundaries around what you want.

But the bigger question is, if it’s not a big enough house and there’s one living room and a kitchen and bedrooms and no basement, where do those toys go? Is there enough room in the bedrooms for the child to have toys there?

I think it was a crowded situation.

That’s what it usually is.

You have to set limits and boundaries around everything. You don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings—your child’s feelings or your grandchild’s feelings—but part of being able to draw boundaries is, you have to stand by what you believe in and hold close to it if it’s that important to you. And if it’s not, then you give in.

“You have to set limits and boundaries around everything.”

Remember not to lose yourself, because if you lose yourself you become anxious, you become angry, you become depressed, and you resent.

So first, you have to know yourself.

That’s just it.

I also met a grandmother who’d taken in her daughter and granddaughter and was so exhausted she was close to her breaking point. The daughter was single; she’d gotten pregnant unexpectedly during graduate school and had come home with a baby.
The grandmother was middle-aged and was working in a government job from early morning until late afternoon. Her daughter, the new mother, was working nights as a waitress, but she couldn’t afford a sitter, which left the grandma watching the baby every evening after work.
And this woman was absolutely exhausted from working all day and caring for her granddaughter all night, especially since she was rarely able to get the baby to sleep before her mother got home around midnight.
I think things have gotten better for this grandmother since I first met her.

What changed?

What changed was the daughter ended up finding a better job, a daytime job, and she was able to afford some daycare and care for the baby in the evening herself.
But there are plenty of other grandmothers out there who are overwhelmed and have no relief in sight.

Even though she’s young … to expect even a younger grandmother to work from early in the morning to 12 at night is unrealistic. So again, the expectations are unrealistic, so eventually the system is going to crack.

But who would have taken care of the baby at night if not the grandma? There was no money for a sitter, and the mother and the grandmother both had to work.

Then they’re going to have a very dysfunctional situation. Unless … why is the child not going to sleep at eight o’clock?

That’s a good question.

Why is the child not going to sleep so Grandma can rest from eight to six the next morning, or do what she needs to do and get a good eight hours’ sleep? Why is that not happening?

I would suggest—let’s look into what’s going on. What messages is this grandchild getting about Grandma and listening to her? What are the rules in the house?

That’s how I’d work on that.

Let’s talk for a minute about favoritism, both real and imagined.
Some grandparents seem to be more focused on one set of grandkids than another, which often upsets the parents of the kids being left out.
Sometimes one set of grandkids is getting more attention for no apparent reason, while in other cases it might be because their parents are going through a divorce or an illness or a hard time financially.

Or [because of] other issues that were operating before that adult child ever got married.

And maybe this was the child that was the more problem child, who always got all the attention, and the parents haven’t let that child go yet to be an adult and stand on his or her own two feet.

[Or] maybe one sibling is out of work, and they do need more money and they do need the help, and it’s too bad if the brother or sister is angry. That’s too bad. This is what parents do. You help the person out who needs the help.

But if it’s not based on that, if it’s based on a process … like there is sometimes in families a favored child, and they had that special spot with the mom or dad. And they can manipulate and utilize that spot and get what they need or want.

What would you recommend to an adult child who thinks he or she has always been the disfavored one?

We would have to look at the process of the family and see if that’s really operating.

And if that’s operating, then you’d have to have the adult child become well seasoned in terms of how he’s feeling or she’s feeling and then go approach the parents and say, “I want to change this. Can you take responsibility for what’s going on? I’m willing to take responsibility.”

And then maybe they would come in here with their parents.

What if grandparents are giving more attention to a particular set of grandkids for a justifiable reason—like maybe those kids’ parents are getting divorced—but the parents of the left out grandkids are still upset?

If the other child is complaining about it, I would question what’s going on with this other adult child.

Aren’t they aware that their brother or sister is going through hell? Divorce is hell, it’s not fun.

“I show my clients the patterns so they can realize that what they’re doing is no different than what went on in previous generations … It’s enlightening and empowering because it gives the person the chance to make a decision: Do they want to change it?”

There are no winners there and it’s a lot of pain, so what’s going on with that older brother or sister or younger brother or sister that they are resenting the time that Grandma and Grandpa is spending? Is this also part of a process from childhood? Was the one who got divorced the favored child, the child who always grabbed the attention? Was the one who got divorced the child who was always getting into trouble and grabbing the attention?

I’d look at that, and one of the first things I do with anybody who comes into my office is I do genogram, and what I do with the genogram is it teaches me, it shows me the patterns within the family system.

And what I do is I show my clients the patterns so they can realize that what they’re doing is no different than what went on in previous generations.

That’s often true, but isn’t it a little depressing?

No, it’s very, very enlightening and empowering because it gives the person the chance to make a decision: Do they want to change it? And with work, you can change it.

So it’s really freeing, because you’re trapped the other way. And it also normalizes their problem so it’s not that they’re crazy, they’re just repeating what they saw.

It’s like bullying behavior. Bullies, they learn it and they just keep repeating it.

We should also talk about stepfamilies, since they’re so prevalent nowadays.
I heard from an older woman who became a stepmother late in the game, after her husband’s kids were grown, and she’s never really been accepted by these adult kids. But now the kids have kids of their own, and the stepmother wants to develop a warm relationship with her young stepgrandchildren.

That’s only if the adult children will allow it. You don’t have control over that. They are the gatekeepers.

The parents are the gatekeepers, and they’re going to decide who comes in and how they come in—whether it’s stepgrandparents or regular grandparents. Another name for it is “boundary guard.” Every system has boundary guards.

And the parents are always the guards of their kids?

Not always. But usually, yes.

Then it’s just not realistic for this stepgrandmother to think she’s going to be able to enter into a grandparenting role unless she’s able to …

Unless she’s invited in.

Unless she’s able to repair …

Unless she’s invited, that’s the word.

“The parents are the gatekeepers, and they’re going to decide who comes in and how they come in.”

Repair? She didn’t even do anything wrong yet. She just showed up at the game, maybe. Maybe she’s the affair partner or whatever, but we’re going to just say she just showed up at the party.

But she’s got to be invited into the party.

Other times it’s the adult stepchildren who end up with hurt feelings.
I talked to a new mother whose stepsister—the daughter of her father’s wife—had a baby around the same time she did. So there are two little boys, little cousins, in this family, but this new mother said that her stepmother was already favoring her daughter’s son over hers. At a family party, the stepmother had given two presents to her biological grandson without giving her stepgrandson anything.

That’s tacky. That’s just poor taste.

The mother I spoke with was so upset that she ended up buying her son the same two things herself.

She can do that, but that’s not the issue. It’s not the things, it’s not the toys. She’s really questioning, “What’s going on in this woman’s head that her biological grandchild gets two toys and the other one gets zero or one?”

She would really need to address that with the woman and say, “Maybe I’m not seeing things right, but you just gave little Sam there two gifts, and my child is just looking on.”

They’re only babies.

Then that’s easier. “You didn’t give me any gift, and I feel like I’m trying to give you equal access and appreciate your efforts as a mother and a grandparent trying to help out, and it just hurt my feelings. Am I reading it wrong?”

I would coach the young woman to approach her stepmother and say, “Maybe I’m reading this wrong.”

It sounds like when you’re coaching your clients you’re always asking them to present themselves humbly.

Respectfully.

Because I don’t know all the details … I’m going on the premise that I don’t know all the details, so I want information from this stepgrandparent because for all I know she maybe bought those things for this child two months earlier, or something very similar. And then the question would be, “How come this new mother is so sensitive to this? What is this about?”

The next subject I want to bring up is such a painful one: estrangement. Some grandparents I’ve talked to have little or no access to their grandkids because someone in the middle generation is limiting their visits or preventing them altogether. In many cases the parents have split up, the mother has custody, and the paternal grandparents are the ones being shut out.
I spoke with one grandmother in the New York area who allowed her son, his girlfriend, and their little boy to live in her home for four years. She helped raise this grandson and was very close to him.
Then, abruptly, the girlfriend left the son and moved with the boy to Chicago, her hometown. The boy’s father has negotiated monthly visits with him in Chicago, but the grandmother hasn’t seen him since he left New York about a decade ago, and it’s been incredibly hard for her.

When couples break up—when our children break up their marriage or their relationship or whatever—not only do they get affected by this separation or divorce, so do the parents, so does the rest of the family.

“You have to set realistic expectations—not what your fantasy wants but what is reality.”

Divorce doesn’t only affect the adult children and the young children; it affects the people who are connected. Just to have this child swooped up … that’s a major loss for this grandmother. So it’s understandable that she would be upset.

Did she mention to the son that she’d like to see the child?

I’m sure she has, and perhaps she could make it to Chicago one day, but there are some logistical problems. For one thing, she only recently retired, and now she’s busy every weekday helping with her daughter’s kids.

She can maybe Facetime the child. But again, she has to get permission.

So she should try to rebuild a relationship with her grandson’s mother?

Only if the son will allow it.

I think he’d be fine with it.

Does the son have contact with the ex-partner?

Just so he can plan his visits with the boy.

He can set it up and send the mother a note or an email saying, “My mother would like to call the child once a week, Facetime the child.”

Remember, we have to be invited into the party. We can’t push our way into the party. We have to be invited into the party. We could state what our needs are.

But this situation is really tough because this grandmother used to be right in the center of the party.

Of course. She went through a major loss. I’m not denying that.

She has to work through the loss and maybe she needs some help to work through the loss, to come out with a new position now as a grandparent at a distance in a separated situation.

And you have to then set realistic expectations—not what your fantasy wants but what is reality. Maybe Facetime is the best it could be.

She’s hoping that the boy will end up in New York when he turns 18.

Maybe he will. Who knows? That’s again wishing and hoping, and if you want to hold your life on a wish and a hope, when it doesn’t happen it’s pretty painful.

So you might as well get more realistic, which is a healthier adaption, and enjoy what you can with this boy now. And if he’s an older child now, why can’t she invite him for a week at Christmastime or in summertime to come to New York?

I don’t think she thinks his mother would allow that.

You never know. She has to put out her need and see if she’s invited.

That’s kind of a painful part of being a grandparent—the lack of control over whether you’re invited and when.

One of the biggest journeys in life for people getting older is the feeling of lack of control over many things.

So the hope is that you can control as much of your life as you can, your personal life. [But] there are so many things that at that stage of life you cannot control: health, sometimes money issues come up, people moving.

I’ve spoken with many other paternal grandparents who do have regular contact with their grandkids but nonetheless feel that they’re playing second fiddle to the maternal grandparents. Maybe the maternal grandparents get first dibs on holidays or maybe the parents chose to live near the maternal grandparents rather than near them.

Isn’t there an old saying, “A son is a son until he takes a wife; a daughter is a daughter for the rest of her life?”

That saying didn’t come from nowhere.

Are you saying that paternal grandparents may need to accept what’s realistic rather than what they …

Wish for.

What’s most important is that grandparents have full lives on their own separate from being grandparents; that they’re satisfied with the quality of their life, and whatever they do, they have a passion.

Many times people come to me and I see that the women immerse themselves in their grandchildren and you know what happens when the child is eight or nine? What do they do?

The child individuates.

Exactly, and the parents go, “Bye-bye Grandma, we don’t need you anymore because Johnny is now staying after school until five o’clock because he’s in sports.”

And this person just gave up eight years of her life … Or how about the grandparent who does this with multiple grandchildren, and then she’s 75 and she just gave up maybe 15 years of her life and everybody goes, “Bye-bye, Grandma.”

Do you see a lot of grandparents in this position?

I have.

What do you advise them if they’ve already given up this time?

Then they have to find a way to deal with their sadness and their depression and their sense of loss and find new purpose. It’s not easy at that age.

This is just a logical progression; this is not children being disrespectful or anything … so my advice for grandparents is, “Never lose yourself. If you want to be a grandparent, be one, but don’t lose your life and what’s important to you.”

I think that’s really good advice, but I’ve met a number of grandparents who are having a hard time holding onto themselves because of pressure from the middle generation to take on more childcare.

Yes, but then we already talked about that.

The grandparents have to state what they want, what they need and how they’re going to conduct their life. Because this is not forever; this is only for a short period of time.

“Always have some meaning and passion and joy in your life that you hold onto, that you don’t let anybody take away from you.”

Always what’s important in life is that no matter what age you are … to always try to be in touch with who you are and what you need and to set realistic limits and boundaries and desires that you can reach on your own.

If you’d like to do that but you’ve never thought of life that way, how do you begin?

You come to therapy and start working on your own individuation.

But some people don’t like the idea of therapy, or they don’t have the time or money for it.

They have to work on, maybe ask themselves, the following questions: What is it they want from life at this point? How would they go about realizing some of these goals? Are they realistic goals?

And remember, there’s a price for everything in life, and most important is always having some meaning and passion and joy in your life that you hold onto, that you don’t let anybody take away from you.

You mean outside of your relationships?

Exactly.

Something you can always count on and access directly.

Years ago I interviewed someone who was going to be a math teacher and I said, “How come you chose to become a math teacher?”

She said, “You can always count on the numbers. They are what they are.”

I said “Very, very good.”

So you always can count on yourself.

Do you have any concluding words on how grandparents and parents should approach one another when there’s a conflict?

First of all, approach each other with respect. Listen to each other; respond in a non-angry, thoughtful way; and look to negotiate and make compromises.

Because what you’re really talking about is a partnership. And in order to form a partnership you need all those elements that I just pinpointed: you have to be able to work together, communicate respectfully, negotiate, and find solutions to dilemmas.

I call them dilemmas because in my mind if it’s a dilemma, there’s a solution; if there’s a problem there’s no solution.