Andrew Adesman M.D.

Building Strong Families

When Worlds Collide: Clashes with Birth Parents

Many grandparents and birth parents have issues. Here's some advice.

Posted Sep 07, 2019

This post was excerpted and adapted from The Grandfamily Guidebook: Wisdom and Support for Grandparents Raising Children, by Andrew Adesman, MD and Christine Adamec, a writer raising her grandson with her husband. Permission was granted by Hazelden Publishing.

When the visits with the child are held in your home, you may experience some clashes with the birth parents. Remember, although they’re adults (by age, if not by behavior!), it’s your house, so your rules apply. If you don’t allow smoking, swearing, or littering, don’t relax your rules. Here are some parental behaviors that upset grandparents and grandchildren.

The Birth Parent Ignores the Child

Some birth parents see visits in your home as a chance to eat well, watch TV, play video games, text constantly with their friends, and do everything except pay attention to their children. In fact, they may feel awkward around their children. If you sense this, you could suggest they interact with their child by playing a game or engaging in other age-appropriate behavior. Consider board games or puzzles, card games (Uno is a good simple one) or playing catch outside if the weather is nice. Also note: despite your best efforts, you can’t change the behavior of others unless they are willing to change.

The Birth Parent Objects When the Child Calls You Mom or Dad

Some birth parents and some grandparents may be surprised when a young grandchild (or even an older child) suddenly starts using the names Mom or Dad rather than Grandma, Grandpa, or any of the other names that grandparents selected for themselves. This situation is less likely if the birth parents are regular visitors and active in the child’s life. But for many birth parents, it could feel like a shock.

The child may have lived with the grandparents since infancy and eventually realizes that most other children call the people they live with Mom and Dad. In one case, a playmate at daycare told a child, “Here’s your Mom!” when her grandmother walked in. The girl was initially startled, then beamed and adopted the term herself. Because the birth parents hadn’t seen the child in years, this grandmother decided to allow this. Other might make a difference choice—there is no one right answer here.

How do you feel about the child calling you Mom or Dad? Is it okay with you? Maybe the birth parent is largely or completely absent from the child’s life and it feels okay. But maybe it doesn’t. In that case, gently ask the child to call you Nana or Grandpa or whatever name you’ve used for yourself. Some grandparents have the child call them Mom, Dad, or a variation of that, while the birth parents are Mommy and Daddy. Decide what works best for you and the child.

The Birth Parent Threatens You

Sometimes birth parents threaten the grandparents. They may even threaten to call child protective services and allege that the grandparents have been abusive to the child. And sometimes they do call. A CPS worker comes out, sees that all is well, and closes the case. The birth parents may also threaten to take the child away without your permission. In some cases, they may threaten physical harm to you or your property.

When there is any concern that the child’s birth parent could harm you or the child, call the police: especially when the birth parent is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, is severely mentally ill, or is threatening you or the child, either with words or actions.

What if a birth parent is actively violent or threatening violence and is already inside your home? Psychiatrist Joel Young, coauthor of When Your Adult Child Breaks Your Heart, has specific advice if birth parents are exhibiting paranoid delusions, believing that you or others are plotting against them:

  • Avoid looking the person in the eyes, which is often seen as a direct threat
  • Don’t let the person get between you and a door in case you and the child need a quick exit
  • Try to stand next to the person rather than looking them in the face
  • Act as if you and the other person are united against the world, even if that contradicts how you really feel; use pronouns like “they” or “we” rather than “I” or “you”—they sound less confrontational to a person who is paranoid.

The Birth Parents Place Their Priorities Over the Child's Needs

Adult children may be used to asking you for help in the form of money, a place to live, a car, and so forth. Yet parenting your grandchild takes a great deal of time and money—even when you receive some financial support from the state or another source. Emma told her son Ian, “If you need something and little Ethan needs something else at the same time, he will win. Every time.”

One afternoon Emma was on her way to Ethan’s school to watch his performance in the second-grade play. Her cell phone rang, and it was Ian. His car had broken down and he needed a ride.  Little Ethan had been talking about this play for weeks and was really excited this morning. Emma knew he would notice if she didn’t show up. So Emma told Ian she couldn’t make it: she’d made a promise to Ethan. Ian was angry and tried to argue with her, but she said firmly, “I would come if I could, but I cannot do it. I have to go now.” And she hung up and pulled into the school parking lot. Did Emma agonize during the  play that maybe she should have gone to help Ian? No, Emma did not. Ian was an adult, age thirty, and not her primary responsibility anymore. Instead, she concentrated on Ethan. When the play was over and the little boy flung himself into Emma’s arms, she was a very proud grandparent.