When we go against the grain and make the decision to raise our children differently, many people receive some serious pushback from their extended family. Some are ridiculed for their choice to not vaccinate their children. Some find resistance from grandparents in the dietary choices they make for their children.
At the core, these situations represent relationship problems. So I've collaborated with Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist Brooke Schmidt with Arrow Therapy to come up with steps to help you handle pushback from extended family and promote peaceful relationships.
Families don't have to agree on everything in order to live in harmony. There are simple practices that can allow for a difference in opinion while remaining respectful and loving.
Have Healthy Boundaries
The first part of having loving relationships is having healthy boundaries. Most relationships are sorely lacking in boundaries which is responsible for a lot of tension and problems. In my line of work, when I make important dietary restrictions for a child to heal, I often hear, "I can enforce it at home but not at grandma and grandpa's." So the child never heals.
This is not healthy for anyone as it is based on unhealthy emotions that makes them feel they cannot set boundaries.
When it comes down to it, relationships can only be healthy if boundaries are present.
The minimum of love is respect. If someone cannot respect another person, that is not a loving relationship.
So the first step in handling pushback from extended family for your choices is setting boundaries.
- What are some of the non-negotiables?
- What specific choices do you feel are important for extended relatives to respect?
- Do you choose to avoid certain foods?
- Do you choose to avoid certain medicines?
Take the time to choose the non-negotiables and set those boundaries. And set them in love. (We'll talk about this a bit more later.)
But there's a catch.
You must be willing to enforce these boundaries no matter the natural consequences that come from them.
You must be willing to detach emotionally from the outcome and know that they can do or say whatever they want but it's their consequences, not yours.
(Please note: This is not the same as not caring about someone's feelings. This is simply not carrying those feelings yourself. Imagine how hard life would be if we carried everyone else's feelings!)
As an LMFT, Brooke spends a lot of time teaching people that they are not responsible for another person's feelings and how they feel about a situation. Grandparents can feel angry about those boundaries but that is not your burden to bear. Your burden is your child's health and wellness.
However, if you are in position of dependency on those family members, such as a parent/grandparent who babysits the child in order for you to earn income, you will have a power struggle which makes boundaries more difficult to set. Compromise may be necessary. Of course, it's not ideal to be in a situation of dependency that prevents healthy boundaries, but there are many in this situation.
Think of Their Intent
After you've set the boundaries, it's time to learn how to handle conflict as it arises. When you are in a situation where an extended family seeks to cross a boundary, you may feel angry and want to act out of that anger or get defensive. But part of having healthy boundaries also means enforcing those boundaries in a loving, respectful way.
Thinking of the other person's intent for what they are saying/doing can help you respond with kindness. For example, if a grandparent insists on giving a child 7-up when they are sick and that is a non-negotiable because you know that refined sugar suppresses the immune system, you can identify their intent as caring for the child and wanting them to get better. They are simply doing what they have always thought has helped.
Often, they are not really attacking your authority but seeking to do what they feel is best for the child.
But you, being the parent, decide what is best for the child. That's why you've set boundaries. So after thinking of their intent and seeing that maybe they are just trying to help, you can respond with love by respectfully declining and sticking to your boundaries.
Manage Your Own Triggers
Many times, people do not set boundaries or respond harshly to those crossing their boundaries because of their own triggers. This often goes back to a person's lack of self-esteem and not realizing their inherent worth.
Everyone has inherent worth just for being alive and not for anything they've done. Knowing our inherent worth provides a healthy self-esteem that helps us walk in love which affects how we set/enforce boundaries.
Remember again: The minimum of walking in love is respect which goes both ways.
When handling conflict, avoid going "one up" or "one down."
One up takes the entitled position that you are better than the other person because of a decision you've made.
One down takes the devalued position that you'll never be as good as the other person because of a decision you've made.
Both come from a place of shame and are not healthy responses to another person. When setting and enforcing boundaries, identify triggers that may cause you to go one up or one down and replace those triggers with thoughts that promote self-esteem and that realize the inherent worth of all people involved, including yourself.
When bringing up a conflict, the best way to lower the listener's defenses, and to feel heard, is to stay on your side of the line. This is where therapists use the Feedback Wheel. Click on that to learn some ways to help bring up or enforce boundaries or other situations that need to be discussed but must be done in a healthy way.
Blood Deals With Blood
In family matters, the general rule of thumb is that blood deals with blood. So a husband should enforce boundaries with his relatives and a wife with hers.
When this doesn't work because a spouse (usually the husband in Brooke's professional experience) won't, this represents a marital issue that needs to be addressed first and foremost.
In most of these situations, there is a critical wife and a withdrawn husband. The husband isn't willing to talk to his family. (Brooke sees this often.) This affects all areas of family life, not just dealing with in-laws.
If this is your situation, ask yourself:
- Are you being critical of him?
- What are you really afraid of?
- Are you asking him questions about his stance?
- Are you giving him time to digest before responding?
- Are you coming from a place of respect?
Relational issues are the same as physical/medical issues. It's broken and this is a symptom. If it's not fixed, it will manifest symptoms in other ways as well. If this is the case, Brooke recommends tabling the in-law problem and addressing the marital issue with a professional.
Sometimes, a spouse IS willing to do it but in their own way where the other spouse wants it done in their way. Each spouse needs the space to deal with their extended family members in their own way.
When both husband and wife agree on the boundaries they will set and agree to enforce them with their extended relatives, everyone benefits.
Boundaries are something we do for people we love.
Blessings of good health,