We generally think of strategic communications planning as something that organizations pursue, as a crucial piece of the overall strategic business plan, but the very same exercise can help you all navigate the tricky business of being grandparents. The trick generally isn’t centered on the grandchildren but rather on how you relate to their parents – your own kids and kids-in-law.

I recently solicited feedback from my own kids, asking them about grandparent comments and behaviours that help, or hurt. One of my daughters reached out to a new mom Facebook group and was promptly overwhelmed with stories and examples.  Mothers-in-law took the brunt of the criticism, often for being overbearing, opinionated, controlling, and insensitive. Mothers came in for their fair share of complaints, fathers hardly any and fathers-in-law escaped mention altogether.

Most of the time, I want to vent. Unless I straight up ask, “What would you do in this situation?” Or “What do you think?”, then don’t offer advice. If I don’t ask for it, then the job as my parent (grandparent of my child) is to be there to listen and offer support aka to watch the child and give me a break. Support is not telling me what to do and how I’m doing everything “wrong” according to you. I’m so sick of feeling like I can’t do anything right.

As I reviewed the examples and stories it occurred to me that strategic communications basics would go a long way to preventing the relationship damage that comes from the ill-conceived comment.

So here’s how it works:  first set an objective for your communications with, let’s say, your daughter-in-law. Presumably, your goal is not to have her dislike and resent you and find excuses to avoid you. I’m going to assume your goal is to have a good, respectful relationship with her AND a happy and healthy relationship with your grandchildren.

Secondly, think of everything you know about your DIL, especially if she is a new mom with an infant. You know she is exhausted, probably anxious about this new role, maybe in pain. What was her life before kids? Was she a professional career woman? If so, she might be frustrated with the sudden lack of control over a tiny human. This is the know your audience piece and it’s absolutely fundamental to the next step, which is choosing what to say, how and when to say it.

My mom has said things like, “She really should be sleeping through the night at this point.” Or “She really should be eating x amount per feeding by now.”

Recognizing how new parents are feeling will help you decide if your benign observation might be received as criticism. Often people who struggle need mainly to be heard so you can’t go wrong by commiserating without judgment. Rather than telling her to “buck up” or talking about how much harder it was to raise kids in the 80s, say (and do) “why don’t you go have a shower/go for a walk/nap while I look after the baby”.

With organizational communications planning the messages take some time to derive but in the case of talking to your adult children with children, there are some pretty clear cut and obvious best practices.

Praise the baby; comment on how well they are managing; offer specific assistance rather than the generic “let me know if I can help”; acknowledge their stress by saying things like, “that must be so hard” or “I remember those early days when my brain didn’t work but don’t worry, it will get better”. Like any other effective communication, preparation is crucial. You wouldn’t think you had to strategize and plan a conversation like this but when it comes to new parents, you’re dealing with fragile people who have suddenly been confronted with the ultimate life responsibility.

Joanna Piros