Some types of conflict, however, can be more damaging to the family as a whole than others, and often the most divisive problems are those that occur between parents and grandparents when small children are involved.
Difficult relations with in-laws are so common that almost no stand-up comedy routine or family sitcom would be complete without jokes on the topic. At their worst, however, problems with in-laws can create rifts and bad feelings that could take years to repair.
A child's grandparents play a very specific role in that child's life. The specific nature of the role can vary greatly depending on the specific cultural background and family traditions involved, but in almost all families the grandparents are expected to be an important part of their grandchildren's lives.
Some grandparents play the role of secondary caregivers when the parents are working or busy. In other cases, if the grandparents are not nearby or available to regularly care for children, they are seen as fun adult figures of semi-authority who often like to treat their grandchildren and make a special occasion out of visits.
Emotional Attachment to the Grandparent Role
As a result of these traditions, many older children and young adults have close relationships with their grandparents and strongly positive memories of time spent with grandparents when they were younger. It's natural, then, for new parents to help their children cultivate similarly strong relationships with their own grandparents.
New grandparents are similarly eager to step into the grandparent role and cultivate those relationships with their grandchildren. In such an emotionally complex situation, any conflicts that arise are bound to cause difficulties.
Why Conflict Arises
One problem is that a child's grandparents are also the in-laws of one of the child's parents. If the mother or father doesn't see eye to eye with her or his in-laws, especially when it comes to issues of child rearing, arguments and feuds could become especially heated.
On one hand, parents don't want to deprive their children or their parents of grandparent-grandchild bonding experiences, for the reasons mentioned here.
On the other hand, however, if a parent has a history of mutual ambivalence or dislike with the in-laws, the desire to cultivate that bond could clash with the enmity felt when any disagreement arises between parent and grandparent.
Bad Babysitting: An Example
An example of this all-too-common situation is useful in illustrating the issue. Consider a family of three: two parents and a daughter of 4 or 5. The daughter has four grandparents, and although most of the family gets along well, her mother has never seen eye to eye with her father's mother.
The father's mother - let's call her Grandma - has been very helpful in watching the daughter while Mom and Dad are at work, but Mom doesn't like some of the things Grandma does. Maybe Grandma smokes in the house or allows the daughter to eat as much candy as she wants.
Mom has asked Grandma to stop these behaviors, but Grandma doesn't see a problem and therefore doesn't bother to change. If not handled carefully, this could be an explosive situation.
Mom wants to let her own mother watch the daughter instead, but she doesn't want to upset her husband, and she fears that Grandma will be upset with both Mom and Dad if she brings the issue up.
Is a Solution Possible?
The best thing to do in situations like this is to tread lightly. If you are involved in such a conflict, recognize that clashes with in-laws are difficult, not only for you, but for everyone. If you maintain a certain degree of empathy as you approach the problem, you'll be able to keep a level head and productively communicate with everyone involved.
As long as no one allows their emotions to escalate to unmanageable levels, conversations can stay reasonable and a compromise can be reached. If compromise is impossible, one party may end up getting hurt, but if you did your best to understand and to be understood, the damage will more easily be repaired and forgiveness will be quicker in coming.
Considering everyone's feelings as you approach the situation and seek solutions will ensure the best outcome of this difficult type of issue.