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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships - 2


It could be you.... 

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor for Relate and in private practice, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet in later life.

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.  

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.


The boundaries of being a grandparent

Maggi Stamp, laterlife's counsellor on human relationships, describes how two-year-old Matthew caused havoc with his parents and grandparents

Some years ago a client, let's call her Mary, came to me in a state of agitation and concern over family relationships. Her case illustrates how easy it is to forget that we all have our own ways of doing things.

Fit and energetic, Mary had been helping to care for her grandson, Matthew, since he was 8 months old, which was when his mother had reluctantly returned to work. She enjoyed her duties and played a valuable part in Matthew's development. But then various conflicts emerged in the family. Mary came to me following a huge row with her husband. It was out of character for them and left her feeling upset and unsettled. The row came one day after Mary had been looking after Matthew. And it followed a scene with Matthew's parents, Tim and Becky.

Mary was close to her son and was fond of her daughter-in-law. Becky is a typical modern mum, juggling full time work with being mother and wife. Her income is necessary to help pay the mortgage and contribute towards bills, etc.  Having  a grandparent to share some of the childcare can be a godsend in these circumstances. On the other hand it can lead to all kinds of misunderstandings.

The apparent disruption in an otherwise ideal arrangement was a change of behaviour in Matthew, normally a happy and outgoing little fellow who loved walks in the park and playing with other children. He ate and slept well and adored cuddles with all three of his carers, Mummy, Daddy and Nana Mary. But not long before Mary came to me, Matthew had became increasingly difficult and challenging, sleeping little during the day, possessive when playing, refusing to eat, and worst of all he was most demanding and bad tempered with his parents - especially his mother - but not with Mary.

Mary had recognised the normal behaviour for a child approaching 'the terrible twos' and knew instinctively how to cope, remembering her own experience as a mother.  This is when they begin to discover a whole new area of vocabulary expressing negative feelings. "Don't like it", "No!", "It's mine", "Go away, I don't like you". Matthew found this a perfect way of letting his parents know he was angry with them for not being around when he wanted them.

After a day at work, Becky always looked forward to seeing Matthew. But now she was finding that once she was home he became a hyperactive, rejecting monster. This awoke the guilt that she should be a full time mum. She knew that most toddlers become difficult around Matthew's age, but what the mind knows and powerful maternal emotions tell us don't always dovetail perfectly! When someone else seems to cope with your child more calmly and competently than you it seems from an emotional point of view that you aren't very good at being a mum.

Add this to mother-in-law being in charge of your house, doing all the things you would love to be able to do for your family and offering helpful tips on caring for your husband and coping with baby's tantrums and you have a volatile mix! Becky's response was effectively to tell Mary that she didn't need to be told how to handle her own baby, thank-you very much. Tim, returning home at this point, had naturally sided with his wife, upsetting Mary even more.

But how does this affect what was going on between Mary and her husband Ray? Self-contained and not a particularly demonstrative man, Ray nevertheless exploded when she told him of Matthew's behaviour and the angry words that followed. Mary was shocked at his reaction. She was expecting support. After all, she was not having problems with Matthew, and it seemed perfectly reasonable to share with Becky some of the tips on how to cope. She was only trying to help.

When Mary and I discussed this, many things began to fall into place as she began to see the points of view of the other adults involved. 

Considering all this and her own experience of mothering Mary realised the following:

  • she herself had found it very hard to deal with her own mother's criticisms, and remembered being highly sensitive to even casual remarks or comments

  • she had assumed that Ray's lack of involvement was lack of interest, and had compensated by doing more with her children.  Perhaps she was repeating that pattern now

  • Ray had assumed he wasn't needed as a ‘hands on' parent and felt excluded and jealous

  • he was still feeling that way.  He also thought that Mary was getting over-involved

Becky and Tim weren't doing things badly, just differently.

After talking things through with Ray, Mary apologised to Becky and explained some of the aspects that had emerged. She acknowledged how much she admired Becky for coping well with the many demands on her life. This reassured Becky and enabled Tim to tell his mum that they were deeply appreciative of how much she gave to them and he loved her for it.

Matthew, meanwhile, took his time and eventually became a sunny-natured three-year-old.

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To view previous articles  - see the Relationship Counselling & Advice Index page  



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