Q. Our son Travis and his wife Lisa have two beautiful kids that my husband and I adore. The problem for me is Lisa. She does things that I don’t like such as bringing her big dogs into our house and feeding them off of our plates. I have a fear of dogs, so I don’t like them in the house. She’s made it clear that I either put up with the dogs or she won’t let the children come to our house. There have been a few times when I have told her how I feel about an issue, and she has kept the children away from us for a few weeks. I don’t understand why my son goes along with her. What, if anything, can we do about having to do everything Lisa wants in order to continue seeing our grandchildren?
A. You’re not alone in your fear of losing access to grandchildren. In my therapy practice I see grandparents experiencing similar fears. I also work with grandparents who have lost contact with their grandchildren for years. Grandparents can lose favor with children and spouses over a range of issues, such as religious decisions, which schools to attend or discipline practices.
You ask why your daughter-in-law sometimes keeps the grandchildren from you if you don’t go along with what she wants. One possible cause involves a narcissistic parent. What is most important to that person is much more important than what you want. Here we are not diagnosing Lisa but just saying that’s a possibility. Regarding your son’s reaction, it could be the case that a parent sometimes holds the other parent hostage with similar fears of divorce or of losing the children.
In your situation, I offer these ideas to improve relations with your daughter-in-law that may benefit the entire family:
- Look for compromise instead of dwelling on the thought that your daughter-in-law is unreasonable and needs to change. For example, it might be a nice gesture to buy some nice dog bowls for the dogs to eat and drink from instead of your plates. Perhaps you could say something like: “I hope you don’t mind that I got the dogs these special bowls. I saw them and I just couldn’t resist.”
- Look for ways to keep your son and daughter-in-law happy with you. Instead of worrying about how unreasonable one or both are, focus on doing and saying nice things for and to them. This shift can change the dynamic and create conditions for cultivating a better relationship.
- Consider meeting on more neutral territory with the family – a park or café, for example – until you can find some common ground.
- Avoid taking sides with either your son or daughter-in-law.
- Develop a close relationship with your grandchildren when you see them. If they enjoy the visits with you, they will likely ask to see you if their parents start to shut off their visits.
- See a therapist for help to learn additional ways to deal with your son and daughter-in-law. In your case, you could also work to stop your fear of dogs.
Grandparents’ rights vary from state to state. What I find in my research is that in none of the 50 states do grandparents have an absolute legal right to see their grandchildren. The law tends to protect parents’ rights to decide what is best for their children.
So, consider how important your grandchildren are to you and what you are willing to do to keep that access. Keep in mind that your daughter-in-law and son are the gatekeepers to that access. Your relationship with them is as important as the relationship with the grandchildren.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RN, CS, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.