How Do I Deal with a Difficult, and Aggressive Grandmother?

Updated on December 20, 2018
C.N. asks from Sunnyvale, CA
15 answers

Sorry in advance for the long post!
This year myself, and my 2 year and 4 month boys spent a month at my parents' followed by a month at my in-laws. My husband was in & out as he has to work. We live overseas and we see each family once or twice a year, so it's a very special time to spend with family and them to see our kids.
I'm on very good terms with my, but my MIL is quite a difficult woman: she needs everything in order, always in fear of something breaking, and keeps yelling "careful" all the time. She is also aggressive which reflects on her husband (angrily yells at him for stupid things like forgetting to bring napkins to the table). Finally, she has an (explosive) personality where throws fits around once a week (targeting also her husband) about seemingly stupid things. I was once the target of one of her fits (she touched on something very important to me) but swore to never again as I really believe she has a mental problem.
I learned to cope with this by simply 1) try not to move anything in her house 2) put everything back / cleanup immediately and 3) let go of stupid comments even if I didn't agree, which has worked well for the past 9 years I've been with my husband. We spend about 2 months a year together, a month at our place and a month at theirs. Honestly, if I had the choice, I wouldn't because of all what I said which makes me feel uncomfortable and irritated. But I respect my husband's closeness to his family, and her desire to see her grandkids as much as possible (she's in her 70's and keeps complaining she hasn't much time left putting a lot of pressure on my husband, but that's a different topic).
My issue now, is my son who is a bit over two years old. Our philosophy in raising him is: there are a clear list of forbidden things which are dangerous (electricity, knives, fire, etc.) or fragile (glass, electronics, etc.). Otherwise, we let him learn by supervised exploration, he helps me with the microwave, some cooking, switch TV channels, sweeps the floor, climbs on chairs, wipes the table, all supervised from distance and taught by explaining (nothing is perfect, but enough to involve a two year old). He is a good listener, obeys without yelling, and understands reason and explanation. He is not a destructive child (beyond what a two year old might do like filling the place with toys) and he is a very happy child!
Since we've been here, he's been hearing (no) after (no) for every little thing and is not allowed to touch anything. I'm obliged to join the (no) game not to upset my MIL! I feel he is confused with all the suddenly forbidden things! And now, a week in, I feel he's become more defiant, ignores what I tell him, and responds by more (no's) than I ever heard him say. Tonight was the hardest for me as bed time was a sad struggle of him insisting that I stay with him, running out of his room (never did before), refusing to sleep and asking for more cuddles than he ever did. After finally going to bed I cried and still feeling too bad, and wondering if this is the impact of the changed attitude.
I'm also physically exhausted as I have to pick up his toys after him every step as my husband is away for work, which by the way, she brought him a ton of toys (usually we have one or two toys when we travel) and yells at him to play a certain way and put them back, for God sake he's two! We didn't get to this milestone yet!
I couldn't talk to my husband yet, so I'm seeking comfort and advise how to handle this? Should I confront my MIL (risking an unreasonable anger tantrum which I promised myself not to get into)? Should I let her have her way and I have my own way even if it's against what she wants? Or should I suck it up and let the month pass and fix it later? Am I overreacting with the impact on my child? is it just temporary until our trip is over? Is it OK to see him (sad?) even for a month?
By the way, the month we spent at my parents was great! We followed the same way with him and he was a charm, so the changed environment is not the problem, we're used to travelling with our kids all the time.
Thanks in advance and sorry again for the long post!

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So What Happened?

Thank you all for your replies and support. I cannot believe the easiest response is the most obvious one :)
We finished up the month vacation with my in laws, we were trying to go out every day and spend a long time in the kids room playing. It was tiring and stressful but the best solution at the time to avoid any conflict, my MIL did have a fit with me due to me responding to one of her critiques regarding my child, but I made a point that her criticism (not positive advise) was not welcome and she ended up apologizing. But that's a different story :) This didn't change the fact that it was still stressful due to her strict rules and the negative environment.
I did speak to my husband, he supported me and acknowledged my issues but didn't know what to do as he doesn't want to upset his mom. I told him we don't have to make a decision right away as we have one year before the next visit, but I made it clear that I'm not willing to spend my precious vacation this way. We didn't talk about it in detail yet as we're dealing with some other things right now but I will bring up the hotel idea for the next time.
To answer some of the questions:
- my husband usually stays with us the whole time but he happened to be traveling for work when I wrote this.
- my family lives in a different country so can't stay there and visit.
- don't get me wrong, my MIL loves the kids and they love her back! (at least the old one, little one is too young to understand haha) It's just that I find it difficult to be a different person with him for such a long time. I understand grandma's rules for a day visit or so but a month is difficult to handle.
- I'm not the one longing for those stays, neither is my husband. SHE is the one who puts a lot of pressure on my husband for the annual visit which became a habit for years now. She would freak out if we announce that we're going to change the ritual. But now with kids my priorities changed and I can't deal with this stress anymore.
- totally agree with the comments: (grandma's house = grandma's rules) and she has all the right to reject our parenting style. But I also have the right not to be there, which I will work on for next year onward.
- talking and trying to reason with her is not an option. She would get offended and DEMAND that the discussion ends if someone disagrees with her or have a different opinion. I've seen this on much lighter (even stupid) topics! That would definitely be my number one solution but not going to go there!

Finally... Yes my boy turned out fine. we're back home and to our normal life and he is doing great :)

Thank you again for your support.

Featured Answers



answers from Atlanta on

I'm joining the chorus of people suggesting you stay elsewhere. My mother is a bit of a control freak too, and because she realized that she couldn't handle having very young children in her house at age 80, my family sometimes stayed in a hotel nearby when we visited them. We actually will be doing that again this time even though my kids are teens and won't destroy anything. It works much better for everyone. It also will let YOU have a break from the rather rough dynamic in that house. Good luck with it!

5 moms found this helpful

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answers from Dallas on

I would not stay at her home. If you have to be there a month, get a long term hotel suite with kitchen and facilities so you carry on your routine with your children.

I can’t imagine staying in anyone’s home more than 3 days nor would I have them at mine longer than 3 days.

10 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

I wouldn't stay at her home. She's toxic, angry and cruel. Her house is not childproofed, first of all, so there is "No" and "Stop it" built in. Beyond that, she's highly critical of everyone (napkins, the "right" way to play, and so on). This is unhealthy for your 2 year old, and it will be unhealthy next year for the baby. Your husband isn' around to see this, buffer it, or stop it.

While I think it's okay for kids to have a certain amount of "Grandma's Rules in Grandma's House," that applies to visits of an hour or son, not for weeks on end. You've seen the change in your child's attitude and behavior, and his mastery of the word "NO!"

I think your husband has to handle his mother, not you. No good will come of i because she already sees herself as the model parent. I would stay with your parens, with friends, or in an extended stay hotel, and your husband can say it's for his mother's benefit to not have tthe mess and the risk of breakage. There is no way you should be there for long periods of time without him to manage her or at least witness this stuff.

7 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

Let your husband stay at his mom's and you just visit for short periods. Stay in a hotel or at your mom's, if possible. MIL's is not a healthy place to be. I would book them a hotel when they come to you. Yikes! What a stressful time for you!!

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Santa Fe on

A month is too long. I would stay 3 days at a difficult grandma's house but then I'd stay in a hotel or somewhere else. It's just too hard on your son! You sound like a very kind person who is trying to bend over backwards to please everyone. This is a hard situation bc you are sure to offend your MIL, but I really think it would be for the best. I would talk very seriously to your husband about this and be on the same page...then he is the one who should calmly talk to his mom about it. Doing this is setting a boundary with her, and yes, she probably will have a tantrum about it. But then she will expect that each year you will stay in a hotel and things should get easier. Think of the will be doing this every year? Then, yes, find a hotel to live in that is nearby.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Norfolk on

Hotels are your best friends.
Simply do not stay at MIL's home when you are visiting her.

Don't read too much into your 2 yr olds behavior.
He's 2 - and fast coming up on the terrible 2's and terrible 3's.
You are going to get some of the annoying behaviors no matter what you do.
It's hard to get through but usually by 4 yrs old most of it's over and you can enjoy being a parent again.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Miami on

Can you please go back to your mom’s? Your poor little guy’s behavior is going to be awful because of her craziness. She doesn’t want your children to act like children. She just wants to have control over everyone.

You either get the kids out of the house during the day, or go back to your mom’s. This situation is untenable. Your husband isn’t even there. Enough is enough.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

oh, my. that's really a very difficult situation.

can you indulge her very real need to spend time with you and her grandkids by staying somewhere nearby but not actually living with them for a whole month? or just staying there for a few days?

i'm betting that despite her controlling and aggressive nature that it's hard on her as well having people in her (carefully controlled) space.

it's really not fair to your little fellow, as you know because your parenting philosophy is sensible and positive. a month is a long time for anyone under these circumstances, but for a two year old it's an endless span of time.

i think you need to take the pressure off ALL of you by staying somewhere else. your husband can stay there himself if that will help.


3 moms found this helpful


answers from Pittsburgh on

You need to be out of that house. Ideally, move to a hotel nearby for your stay. If you absolutely can't do that, then find a reason to be out of the house for the day every single day. Leave after breakfast and come home just before dinner so your child can spend most of the day being a child (if he naps, you can stop at home in the middle of the day at naptime, then go back out). Find a local children's museum or play space and buy a membership and go every day. Find all the playgrounds within a reasonable driving distance, pack a lunch, and go anytime you don't go to the children's museum. Your MIL's city will have places designed for kids to run, play, and explore. Find those places and GO. If your MIL wants to have time with the grandkids, you can invite her if you think that she'll lay off when it's not her house. If she's like some that I know like this, even if you invite her, she won't go with you most of the time anyway because she'll want to stay home and fix the minuscule things that might be out of place at her house.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Portland on

I can't tell by your post if your parents live nearby to your MIL. If so, I'd just say that it works out best for you to stay with your parents (have hubby communicate this). It's not a healthy environment for you or for kiddos.

Your son will adjust - so let that go. Don't add that to your stress at the moment. He's also likely picking up on your stress (listen, I'd be stressed too). Once you're home, he'll revert back to normal.

Most people (and I mean most) cannot stay with relatives or anyone for a month. Even a week is pushing it. It's great you get along so well with your family. I do with mine.

My personal experience - my MIL has no rules, wanting to be our kids to like her. She would never say no and when they wouldn't respect her, she'd cry. She would then get upset, and angry. It didn't work out. So opposite problem to you, but ultimately you can't have people around your kids if they get angry.

My husband tried communicating respectfully to his parents that they had to have rules/limits, but some parents aren't willing to listen to their grown kids. Grandma has the right to keep her home as she likes - but she doesn't have the right to be angry with your child. My husband comes from an angry family - and it's very destructive. Don't stay with them. It's like walking on eggshells.

Get a hotel or go and stay with your family if you can. Your husband may not agree with you (he may think it's ok if he grew up with this and think it's 'normal') - it's not healthy. Be firm.

Good luck :)

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

You need to go to a hotel. The environment is toxic. Really. You see it. Now instead of making excuses for her? Get to a hotel, bed and breakfast - something. But get out.

Tell your son that while you are at Grandma's house? We must obey her rules and she doesn't like her things touched - this is why you are saying "NO" and he can't help like he normally does. She is afraid things will get broken and she likes things "her way". Is that always right? NO. But it's HER HOME. So we must respect her rules.

Please just take your son and get to a hotel or go home. really. this is NOT a healthy environment for ANYONE>

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

Your MIL isn't passive aggressive. She's not use to having people in her house all the time and little kids in the house is overwhelming for her. While I understand your desire to stay there so your kids can spend time with their seldom seen grandparents you have to throw in the towel on these long visits or stay at a hotel and make day plans to interact.

The problem is that she's long forgotten what a 2 yr old is like. She doesn't interact with him for most of the year so when she buys things for him she has a certain view on how he'll enjoy them. But when the reality comes and its not the way she thought its not something she reacts a little childish but I think its because she just doesn't know what a 2 yr old really does.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Fort Myers on

Whats the point of staying with your MIL if your husband works all the time? Your parents on the other hand seem like they help you with the boys and want them around. Talk to your husband, staying at his parents house isn't good for any of you guys. Bite this in the butt now. You're boys are going to feel your anxiety and you don't want them to feel that way.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

I agree with most of the other posts here that the best thing to do would probably be to stay somewhere else, but in case that’s really not financially or logistically possible, I’d like to add some ideas on how to talk about these things with her. I don’t think you want to confront her, because she sounds like she would quickly become defensive and angry. But, I also don’t think you want to join the “no” game. This is too stressful for your son, for you, and probably for your MIL too, so it’s not working for anyone.

I think you could try exploring parenting goals in a non-confrontational way. So, for example, during a downtime when the kids are sleeping, see if you can engage her in a conversation about how people parented when you and your parents were growing up, and maybe ask about when she was growing up. Share a memory you have, ask her about your childhood. Try to insert the idea that you or your parents were raised at a time when children were expected to learn how to not touch things, but now child development specialists think it’s more important for very young children to be able to safely explore their environment because that’s how they learn. You want to try to see if by acknowledging your own parenting learning curve, you can open her mind to other ideas. Then, when she tries to intervene with your son, which she probably still will, you can intervene and remind her that you are approaching this a little differently. You’re not trying to judge her, just reassure her that you’ll make sure nothing gets broken, and ask if there is something she is worried about. If she can tell you her worry then you can address it.

For example, my FIL was horrified at how frequently I was nursing my baby, and after a few rude comments he made, he finally asked “what does the doctor say about that”, which given his respect for doctors, allowed me to say “the doctor says it’s great to nurse on demand”, and reassure him. I asked him questions and learned that he had been told that bottle was best when my husband was an infant, and we chatted a bit about how things change every generation. He still asked me sometimes about it, but once we had that conversation, his comments got less rude, so I could more easily reassure him we were fine. When my kids got older, this strategy came in helpful regularly, engaging him and addressing his worry, but holding firm that my husband and I had a plan we were sticking too. It did get easier over time.

Be confident that you are doing what you know to be best. Also, remind her how grateful you are for her important role in your children’s life, for letting you stay with her, for all the toys she has given your son and try to find things that he likes to do together with her that are easy for her. Maybe thank her for reminding you of the importance of cleaning up after play, but since he’s so young, you will be the primary one cleaning up. If you're feeling tired and want to wait to clean up, tell her your plan, "I'm just going to let this sit for a little while, so I can take a rest with the kids, is that OK with you?" When you're up for it, try to beat her to the punch so she doesn’t yell at him, just let him know when you’re done with a toy, you can put it away and keep it fun. Gently intervene in a reassuring way if she tries to teach him the “right” way to play, by suggesting to her “let’s just watch and see what he does. It’s OK if he doesn’t know, he’s learning.” I would take a gentle, teaching approach with her, and see if she can calm down.

If she can’t, then I do think you either need to stay elsewhere or cut the visit short.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from New York on

No child should be yelled at or made to feel bad and it also doesn't sound like you are happy there. That being said, I'd like to point something out.

I get that the movement of many parents is this "supervised exploration" (never heard that term, but it seems to fit) type of parenting. However, I would NOT want a 2 yr old using my microwave (even with supervision), climbing on chairs, cooking, even with help, or anything else like that. That isn't how I am comfortable having children in MY home. It would be beyond stressful to have mom "watching" these behaviors and even encouraging. It isn't the type of parenting I like or I am used to - and in my home, I don't think I could get on board with it (at least not for a month). My daughter does something similar with her kids - great! and she can totally let the kids do it at her house. At my house, things are different. Her kids know it (and love coming to Mimi's house in spite of our different parenting types) and do perfectly fine when visiting.

Honestly, I don't know if you are making MIL to be the big bad wolf here or not, but maybe you do need to accept that she isn't on board with your little one using the microwave. Maybe the answer is staying somewhere else, maybe its being gone for as much of the day as possible, and maybe next time, figuring out how to shorten the visits is a good idea. However, I will say that it is her home and maybe working with your child to accept the difference in rules in different homes is a good place to start - especially if you plan to do alot of traveling in the future. If you child can understand microwaves, he can understand that his grandma has different rules at her house than at his own house.

Good luck.

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