A husband’s relationship with his mother-in-law can be a complicated dance. Even if the two of you get along, there’s still ample opportunity for you to say or do something that can be misconstrued. This goes double when grandkids become involved. Kids can bring another variable into the mother-/son in-law relationship that, if not handled delicately, can result in conflict. Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent offered a few examples of hot-button phrases you might not realize will get you into trouble. Do these apply to all relationships? Of course not. But they’re a good roadmap for the types of triggers that could cause discomfort.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to In-Laws
1. “You do so much for them. I know they want to be with you all the time.”
A statement like this can be a great ego boost for Grandma, but it can backfire. It can end up setting unrealistic expectations in her mind about how much time the kids want to spend with her. “This can lead to hurt when the kids decline an invitation,” Dr. Walfish notes. In other words, the first time your son or daughter passes up time with grandma for time with a friend, get ready for a confrontation.
2. “You’re his grandmother; don’t let him talk to you like that.”
Kids mouth off. It happens all the time. But that doesn’t mean that it’s your mother-in-law’s place to discipline them. “Your mother-in-law may think it’s your responsibility to correct the kids in the way they speak to her,” Walfish says. Expecting your mother-in-law to handle a discipline problem, especially when you’re right there, can lead to resentment and, as an offshoot, can foster problems with your own kids as well, who might take your passing the buck as a sign of weakness.
3. “Well, grandma is here, so I guess the rules go out the window.”
Sure, having grandma over is supposed to be a fun time and grandparents tend to spoil their kids. But bringing it up, even in a lighthearted way, can give your mother-in-law the wrong message. “Don’t say this,” says Walfish, “your mother-in-law will infer that it’s her fault that your kids are wild and out of control.”
4. “Enjoy the grandkids while you can. Teenagers only want to be with their friends.”
“Even though this is a true statement,” Walfish says, “don’t make Grandma sad and elicit separation anxiety in her.” Grandparents are acutely aware of the passage of time, and this kind of a remark can only serve to remind Grandma of that fact. Additionally, it can plant the idea in her head that the kids don’t want her around, which can also lead to unpleasantness.
5. “I hope your grandkids appreciate all that you do for them.”
This is just lazy. If they appreciate what she does for them — and they should — make sure that they show it to her rather than just telling you all about it.
6. “You don’t need to come to all their games. They don’t always want a big cheering section.”
Your mother in law might have a hard time getting to games and you might be saying this as a means of taking pressure off of your mother-in-law. Whatever the case, this is nearly guaranteed to blow up in your face. Whatever your intentions, your mother-in-law will likely see this as you telling her that she isn’t welcome at your kids’ sporting events. “She will surely feel rejected and left out,” Walfish says.