The Uncharted and difficult terrain of in-laws and grand parenting.

By Lyn WorsleyGrandmother and Girls Baking Cupcakes

Clinical Psychologist

Over the past couple of years I have had a number of couples who see me regarding navigating the relationships with their adult children and son and daughter in-laws and particularly as to the role of grand-parenting.

Here is a typical scenario.

Kelly and Chris recently married. They have been together for over 7 years and appear to get on well with each of the in laws. Chris is the youngest of his three siblings and his parents appear to be at a loss for what to do now that the children have moved out of home. Chris’ mum rings every second day and tries to organise the family get togethers. She would like them to come over on the weekends, however Kelly and Chris want to spend time with their friends, having dinner parties and going out in the city after work.

Over time Kelly has found the requests to come over tedious, and has begun to avoid the phone calls. Chris replies to his mother’s requests by deferring to Kelly. Chris’s mum begins to feel rejected and as a result stops ringing Chris, and instead waits for him to ring her. After 6 months there is little contact and only two calls when Chris needed to borrow something. Chris’s mum begins to feel resentful and hurt and starts to avoid going out to things and avoids talking to any of her children. Both parents begin to feel isolated and angry. The few family get-togethers are tainted with resentment and awkwardness.

This is a very familiar story and one that comes with a lot of grief. What is happening and how do the family move toward a more positive set of interactions and support?

When we look at the relationships of resilient families we can see that there are no perfect interactions and many of them report there is a rocky transition towards the good relationships within the family. The best observation however is that the families who seem to adjust to this transition a more accepting of each others imperfections, are in tune with each others motives and a less reactive to their mess ups.

John and Julie Gottman (Gottman, 1994) in their studies of relationships through the eyes of the positive psychology world, show that there is a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative language in good relationships and they go on to predict how the presence of this ratio leads to good relationships.  But actually, much more than the 5:1 is important.  More generally, John Gottman is widely known for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis through scientific direct observations published in peer-reviewed literature. He notes.

“A relationship is a contract of mutual nurturance. Relationships have to be a rich climate of positivity. For relationships to be strong, the ideal climate is one teeming with positive interactions.”
~ John Gottman, May 2009

This quote is relevant for relationships in general and not just the couple relationship. With the role of grandparents and parents in law, it is important therefore to be proactive with your responses to the younger generation.

  Here are some tips that I frequently help clients to focus on.

Think about how you would like the relationship to be. Try and paint a picture in your mind. Be fairly clear but realistic. So for example consider how do you want them to think about you or talk about you to their friends. What values do you want them to say about you. ‘Kindness, always there for us, strong, independent.”  Keep this picture to yourself, but share the values you have through your actions. (Even if they are not deserving of your kindness).

  1. Keep the focus on what works. Where do you connect easily? When is the relationship smooth and less rocky? These brief moments give you windows into what works and where the positivity is most likely to exist. You can build on these moments.
  2. Instead of grieving the relationship you don’t have, keep an eye on what is good about the one that you do have. Look for opportunities to thank others since gratitude is as good for the giver as for the receiver.
  3. Make it intentional how you move through time together. Those actions are about working towards shared meaning. The rituals of connection are very important. So plan activities where shared meanings can exist. If they don’t show up, do the activities anyway, sending them pictures or messages showing the values of the activity.  For example, Cricket, footy games, picnics.
  4. Avoid emotional blackmail, “it would have been good except you didn’t come” or “I’ve gone to all this trouble just for us” rather use words like. “I’m looking forward to sharing things with you, but I understand if you can’t make it.”
  5. Support each others roles, e.g. role of mother, father, and friend. Let each other be who they are: this is what’s meaningful to them. Do we know our children’s mission? Does the relationship support our separate missions in life? Be aware that your mission in life may not be the same as your adult child.
  6. Build your own strengths and your own life separate from your adult children. You’ll be happier when learning about your own strengths and using them in new ways, according the Seligman (Seligman, Rashid, & Parks, 2006).  You also become more interesting to them, and your values are more on show with your interests.
  7. Use those strengths and positive emotions to undo disgust and other negative emotions that come from dealing with others. Positive emotions have many nice outcomes, especially the reversal of negative emotions. (practice gratitude, and find jokes to laugh about, distract with pleasant thoughts)
  8. Barbara Fredrickson’s (Frederickson, 2009) explain how to Practice Active Constructive Responding, the tool for positive and interactive responding to the capitalizations of others. What you say in response to the good news of others is a better predictor of your relationship outcome than how you respond to problems. So consider ways to be excited about the success of your adult children, even if you are not happy with their choices, or you would have liked them to do what you would value.
  9. Finally, don’t give up, Keep giving and sharing for their sake. Your role as a parent never stops, and they will consider how you behave as a guide for their future. You never stop being a parent, because you never stop loving, even when they are hard work. So when you give, make sure it is for their benefit, not to make them feel guilty, or because you want them to like you but rather give what they need. This may be with, time, an understanding smile, a comment that shows you remember their stress and an openness to adapting to their lives as well.


Frederickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity. New York: Crown Publishers.

Gottman, J. M. (1994). What Predicts Divorce: The relationship between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Neew York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Seligman, M. E., Rashid, T., & Parks, A. C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 61(8), 774-788. doi: