How to Be a Good Mother-in-Law and Grandmother

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Mothers-in-law have been the butt of millions of jokes. In fact, stereotypes dating back as far as 50 years portray the mother-in-law as the most problematic relationship in the family. Yet, it's no joke when it comes to being a good mother-in-law. This role is not only challenging but requires considerable effort.

Being a good mother-in-law is one of the most important roles in healthy family dynamics. In order to someday be a good grandmother, you should first study how to be a good mother-in-law, as this relationship can set the tone for your role as grandmother.

Additionally, if you focus on being a positive influence and acting accordingly, research shows that these attitudes and behaviors could end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy in many instances. In other words, people who believe their ties to their in-laws will be strong, will end up having strong ties.

Mother-in-Law Stress

Perhaps one of the most challenging relationships is the mother-in-law's relationship with her adult child's partner. This relationship is often tension-filled because it engenders a natural competition. No longer is the mother the most important person in her adult child's life. Naturally, this new role can create some competition and resentment, without the mother-in-law even realizing it.

Because of this natural competition, it is not uncommon for mothers-in-law to make overtures, implied criticisms, and back-handed compliments without fully recognizing what they're doing. To further complicate matters, researchers believe that some people are more intuitive and empathetic than others.

For this reason, they may pick up on subtly disparaging behavior that others in the family may miss altogether. That explains why some partners may become angry when the other partner does not take their side in a disagreement—they are blissfully unaware that their partner is covertly being attacked.

Mothers-in-law need to be particularly aware of how they are responding to and treating their adult child's partner and make corrections as needed.

By taking steps to work through difficult feelings and release any resentment you may feel, you can reduce the likelihood that you respond or speak in a way that is damaging to the relationship. It's vital that you not only embrace your new role, but that you also develop a respectful, empathetic, and encouraging relationship with your adult child's partner.

Be a Positive Mother-in-Law

The primary rule for a mother-in-law who wants to get along with their adult child's partner is to avoid being critical. Instead, try to be positive, encouraging, and supportive in all your interactions.

It goes without saying that all subtle criticisms and overt criticisms should be avoided. You also should always refrain from criticizing your adult child's partner. This includes making critical remarks to their face, to your adult child, or even in the company of friends. Here are some examples of ways in which mothers-in-law can appear critical without realizing it.

For instance, if you clean your adult child and their partner's house without being asked, they may not see this as a kind gesture. Instead, it can appear that you believe they are bad housekeepers.

But, asking how you can help—especially after they have a baby—and then following through is more likely to receive a positive response and be viewed as a generous gesture.

You also should avoid offering unsolicited advice. While you may have a lot of really wonderful ideas, it's probably better to keep those things to yourself rather than sharing your opinions, especially when it comes to parenting decisions.

Doing so, can make both your adult child and their partner feel like they are being judged. Instead, try to be encouraging and supportive when they share their ideas. And remember, those who want advice generally ask for it.

Gift-giving is another area that can get particularly tricky. As a general rule of thumb, you should avoid giving any type of self-improvement gift unless your adult child's partner specifically requests something. This includes giving them a gym membership, self-help books, or even parenting books. Sometimes even giving cookbooks can be misconstrued.

But perhaps the most important thing mothers-in-law should avoid is doling out thinly-veiled praise. If you praise the relaxed attitude of your adult child's partner when you really think they are a slob, you need to realize that you're not fooling anyone, and more importantly, you are injuring your relationship with the couple.

Things That Appear Critical
  • Cleaning their house

  • Offering unsolicited advice

  • Giving self-improvement gifts

  • Giving backhanded compliments

Things That Are Helpful
  • Asking how you can help

  • Supporting their decisions

  • Accepting them for who they are

  • Offering sincere compliments

Be a Generous Mother-in-Law

The major conflict between a mother-in-law and her adult child's partner arises from this: The mother was the most important woman in her child's life. Now, the partner is. That is entirely as it should be, yet many mothers have difficulty with it, especially if they are widowed or divorced, or if they do not have close relationships with other children.

Mothers should go to great lengths to avoid making an adult child choose between her and their partner, even in trivial matters. It's a battle that just can't be won. Instead, find ways to encourage and support their marriage.

For instance, if they are new parents, you can offer to watch the baby while they get some much-needed couple time together. Or, if your child's partner needs some time for self-care after having the baby, offer to come over and watch the baby while they take a nap, get a pedicure, or have coffee with a friend.

If you are generous with your time while being considerate of the couple's needs, you are more likely to be rewarded with a positive relationship with your adult child's partner.

The key is that you spend less time focusing on how your role has changed and more time adapting to the new dynamics in your relationship. When you do that, you are more likely to build a strong and lasting relationship with your adult child and their partner.

Be a Helpful Mother-in-Law

Lots of mothers-in-law are great helpers. They loan money, run errands, and help with chores. They also may arrive at every visit with a home-cooked meal, a bag full of groceries, or a gift for the home. This type of help may be appreciated at first, especially if the couple is young.

Eventually, though, this type of mother-in-law could become the target of a backlash, especially if the couple starts to feel like the help is overbearing or infringing on their autonomy and independence. But, by then the mother-in-law's efforts may be so ingrained that nothing short of a dramatic rift will change it.

No one wants a young couple to suffer or to go without, but in the absence of real need, you should empower them to take care of themselves. Instead, offer your help when they are in a bind and when they ask for assistance.

Occasionally, you can drop off a loaf of banana bread or a casserole as a token of your love. But, try to avoid always bringing them a gift or doing things for them that they can do for themselves. And once they have children, be willing to help out whenever you can. This type of helpfulness is especially appreciated by harried parents.

Be a Respectful Mother-in-Law

Perhaps, one of the most important traits a mother-in-law needs to display is respectfulness. Being respectful of the couple's time and relationship builds a sense of trust. It also communicates that you value and prioritize their needs as a family unit and are willing to respect their boundaries. In return, they will hopefully respect your boundaries as well.

Unfortunately, misunderstandings and hurt feelings can crop up when there is a lack of respect for boundaries in any relationship. Here are some ways you can ensure your are honoring your adult child and their partner's boundaries.

  • Allow the couple to host a holiday celebration if they want, rather then expecting them to always come to your home.
  • Be aware that you may not be welcome in the delivery room or birthing room when your grandchild is being born. Sometimes grandparents aren't even invited to the hospital, as the young parents want that time for bonding. As hard as that decision may be for grandmothers to accept, it is the young parents' call and you need to respect their decision.
  • Invite the couple to your home, too, rather than just expecting them to host you all the time.
  • Recognize that you may not be invited along on trips and vacations nor will you be included in every party and social occasion the young couple hosts in their home.
  • Refrain from dropping by without calling or giving them adequate notice. Of course, if you're in the neighborhood, you can call and ask to stop by, but don't be offended if they say no or are not available.
  • Use restraint if you're given a key to the home of an adult child and use it only when asked to do so or in case of a real emergency.

Be a Good Grandmother

Once a mother-in-law becomes a grandmother, maintaining good relationships is even more important, as the adult children are now the gateway to the grandchildren. Grandparents who have carefully cultivated a positive and respectful relationship will reap the benefits of being trusted family members.

Those who have fostered family conflict instead may find themselves left out of the grandchildren's milestones or worse helping them weather divorce. Even worse, grandparents who promote conflict instead of harmony often find themselves estranged from their grandchildren, which is one of the saddest of situations to be in.

To avoid finding yourself in this situation, it's important to not view your grandparent role as another chance to be a mother. Your role as a grandmother is different—and some would say even better. So, don't try to take on responsibilities that don't belong to you.

Instead, leave the parenting to your adult child and their partner and focus instead on loving your grandchildren, respecting their parents, and having fun in your new role. Most importantly, mothers-in-law need to remember the first rule for communicating with adult children: family ties are no excuse for rudeness.

Treat your adult child's partner the same way you would treat anyone with whom you'd like to build a relationship, and success is more likely to follow.

Likewise, if you live out of town and come for a visit, try not to stay more than a few days unless they specifically request that you stay longer. Offer to help out while you're there including changing a few diapers and watching the baby while the parents rest.

You also should not expect your adult child and their partner to wait on you. You are there to bond with your grandchildren and their parents without trying to take over the house or hog the grandchildren.

A Word From Verywell

Being a good mother-in-law is no easy task. After all, you are in a precarious position where the wrong move could end up doing more damage than you ever intended.

But, if you focus on being kind, friendly, supportive, and respectful, you should weather the storm without incident. Things may not go always as you had hoped and you might not have the relationship with your adult child's partner that you dreamed of, but you will know that you made every effort possible to be the best version of yourself.

Ideally, you also have nurtured your personal life and have not made your adult child and their partner the center of your world. This way, when the relationship hits a bump—as almost every relationship does—you won't feel like your world is falling apart. You can work to make amends while realizing that your adult child and their partner aren't your only source of socialization.

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2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Fingerman KL, Gilligan M, Vanderdrift L, Pitzer L. In-law relationships before and after marriageRes Hum Dev. 2012;9(2):106-125. doi:10.1080/15427609.2012.680843

  2. Warrier V, Grasby KL, Uzefovsky F, et al. Genome-wide meta-analysis of cognitive empathy: heritability, and correlates with sex, neuropsychiatric conditions and cognition. Mol Psychiatry. 2018;23(6):1402-1409. doi:10.1038/mp.2017.122

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