Monday 27 March 2017

How can I get my partner to discipline his grandchildren?

David Coleman

David Coleman

HOW should the family and friends of parents, who refuse to discipline their children appropriately, react? Over the past three weeks, I've been spoken to in the rudest manner by a teenager and yelled at, spat at and hit hard by the young grandchildren of my partner.

I want very much to discipline them, to tell them that it is unacceptable to be deliberately rude and/or to randomly hit people when unprovoked. But if I complain about their behaviour I am accused of being a ''crank'', ''forgetting that they are only children'', ''having Victorian expectations'', and ''reacting childishly''.

I have worked with children for years and I am often able to give discipline with just a look, the raise of a finger, and at least without raising my voice. I am also against naughty corners and general humiliation. I do believe my partner should take responsibility. I believe he should talk with his daughter about the bad behaviour of her children. I believe she should realise that her children aren't as charming or adorable as she believes they are because without the rose-tinted glasses of parenthood, these children are horrid. Furthermore, they are all, coincidentally, not doing as well in school as they should be due to the very same problem -- lack of discipline. I would appreciate your views and advice.

IT IS important to tread carefully when expressing opinions about nieces, nephews, grandchildren, step-children or, in your case, step-grandchildren.

It is easy to cause deep and lasting divisions within families. I don't think anybody welcomes unsolicited criticism. By criticising the behaviour and attitudes of your partner's grandchildren you are, by default, criticising his daughter's parenting.

The criticism may be warranted; if your description is accurate then these children do sound like they need firmer limits about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

You are already finding, however, that your opinion is not being heeded. Indeed, you are being told very clearly to keep your opinions to yourself. You are told that they are neither justified nor relevant.

From your perspective I can imagine that this is hugely frustrating, particularly if you feel you have very relevant experience and knowledge to support your views.

Being able to discipline children with a look depends entirely on your relationship with that child. Generally, if a child knows you and knows your consistent discipline policy, they can decide to respond to a look because they will know that it will be backed up by decisive action if needed.

In the situation you describe above, however, it seems like any authority you may have has been fully undermined by the other adults around who have dismissed your views. It is as if you have been written off as a moaning old woman.

At present you seem to be especially undermined by your partner's tacit, or explicit, dismissal of your opinions as outmoded and overly strict.

This seems to me to be unfair. What you need to reach is a point at which you are not seen as an interfering annoyance but as someone who genuinely has constructive and helpful opinions to share.

What does seem apparent, though, is that by his lack of support for you, your partner is showing you that he has differing expectations for how children should behave.

Before you attempt to address issues with your step-daughter, it sounds like you and your partner need to talk to be able to find some common ground on what standards of behaviour you will expect of the children when they are visiting you.

If you just expect him to "take responsibility" for talking to his daughter then I think it is unlikely you will get any of the change you desire.

Unless you and your partner have agreement about what needs to change then it will be impossible for either him or you to talk to your stepdaughter about how she might deal with the rudeness of her children.

When it comes down to it, parenting is all about values. It is about what you believe is right and wrong, what you believe is good and bad for children and for families. Once you know what you believe then the practical skills and methods you employ in dealing with your children tend to follow quite naturally.

Talking about core values, then, is the basis on which you should begin your discussions with your partner.

In my experience, finger-pointing, blaming and criticising will always increase conflict and tension.

Resolving conflict or constructively disagreeing with your partner requires seeing the world from his perspective and not just your own.

You can encourage him to see things from your perspective too by telling him, using 'I' statements, about how you feel in response to his comments, behaviour or views.

It is okay to agree to disagree sometimes; this keeps the opportunity for further discussion at a later date open. Trying to make him feel bad for his opinion (such as has already happened to you) rarely helps to reach a solution, it just deepens the hurt and the conflict.

So explain what you believe in when it comes to children and be open to really hearing what he believes in. Then look for crossover and common views.

Identifying where you are in agreement (even if it is only in small areas) is a great way of building hope and confidence that further agreement is possible. What you may find is that you too must make some compromise in what is or is not acceptable behaviour in your home.

Once you and your partner do reach greater agreement about what is the best way to deal with his grandchildren's behaviour, then you may be able to speak together with his daughter. If you are presenting a shared view then she may be more inclined to listen.

There is no guarantee that she will take on board the observations you will have to make but she is likely to give them greater consideration if she sees that you and her dad share them.

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author.

Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence

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