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BLOG: How can we balance the rules when Grandma babysits?


Question: My husband’s mother watches our preschooler while we work. It’s not ideal because she has different rules than we do. She lets him watch TV and eat junk food. When he comes home, he’s disrespectful to us. We can’t afford to pay for child care. What can we do?

Answer: Limits need to be set in a manner that a young child can understand. As parents, we do harm when we yell at children and punish them for something they have no control over – how Grandma disciplines. Effective limits should be simple and clear.

Here is an example of what to do when the child acts out after a day at Grandma’s. It is called ACT:

1. Acknowledge the feeling/ wish/want: “You are really upset when you come home from Grandma’s house. You seem tired and hungry. It’s been a long day, huh?”

When you acknowledge a feeling, wish or desire, you’re saying to the child, “I care about you, I understand. I hear you.”  There could be several reasons why a young child acts out and is unable to express his feelings. He doesn’t know the word for the awful feeling inside him. The child could be:

  • Missing you during the day
  • Overtired
  • Very hungry
  • Confused by no limits at Grandma’s

If we want the child to hear us, it’s important to hear the child first. Children can only hear us when they are calm; they can’t hear us during a temper tantrum. Give them a moment to calm down. Remember, you can’t teach a child to swim when he’s drowning. Temper tantrums are drowning! Take a deep breath. Acknowledging a feeling helps to deescalate the situation.

Most importantly, the discipline at Grandma’s house is not the child’s fault. Getting angry doesn’t help anyone in the family.

2. Communicate a limit:I’m not for hitting or being yelled at.”

Limits are rules of the road, just as we follow stop signs, traffic lights or yield signs. Limits are not about judging the child but helping him learn the rules of the road. This is discipline, which means to teach. By stating rules as a fact, we let the child know we care about him, but we do not accept his behavior. If you punish him, you’re sending the message, “You are bad.”  

3. Target an alternative: “You can tell me you’re tired, and I can give you a hug.”

By suggesting an alternative action, we help the child learn to get what he wants (meet his needs) in an appropriate manner.  

Using ACT is age appropriate and guides the child to self-regulate. A young child doesn’t think like an adult.  Deal with one situation at a time. Talk to the child about his behavior at that moment. Avoid talking about your frustration with Grandma.

Using ACT for setting limits enables us to build a trusting relationship with our child and helps him express his feelings, rather than acting out those feelings. He will be able to say, “I’m tired. I need a hug,” or “I missed you all day.”

It’s best to use the ACT method consistently and over a good period of time so the child feels safe and secure. A young child is just beginning the journey to self-regulate. It takes at least 20 years to learn self-control. We need to support that growth.

You can use ACT too when approaching Grandma:

      1. Acknowledge a feeling: “I really appreciate that you watch Sam for me while I'm at work.”
Communicate a limit: “I don’t like that Sam comes home on a sugar high and won’t eat his dinner.”
Target an alternative: “Would it be possible for you to limit the number of fun food snacks? I can bring you some of the snacks that he eats at home.”

ACT for Grandma makes it possible to:

  • Validate Grandma’s feelings that she’s helping you out.
  • Work collaboratively, rather than fighting.
  • Foster dialogue about Sam, rather than build up anger and resentment. You both care about him, after all.
  • Create a trusting, safe relationship for you, Grandma and Sam.

Avoid arguments in front of Sam. It’s scary and confusing for children and reinforces the behavior you don’t want.  

Be aware this method takes patience and consistency. The reward is open communication, though. Best of all, you’re modeling an appropriate way to handle difficult situations.

Jane Robinson, an infant mental health specialist, co-founded Center for Child Counseling in Palm Beach County.

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