THE BLOG
05/29/2014 06:41 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2014

Dear Family Whisperer: My Brother's Kids Run Wild!

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Dear Family Whisperer

I cannot seem to navigate the bumpy landscape of parenting differences between my brother's and my family. We LOVED the idea of our kids growing up together as cousins and spent a lot of time during the baby years. Our differences were obvious then and have become even more so. They allow a lot of technology in their home, they eat differently and their discipline is very different. That's their choice, but I don't want to be called out because of what I do or don't do -- for example, let my 4-year-old wear lip gloss. My niece and nephew run amok in my home, and nobody corrects them. Worse still, my brother and sister-in-law get angry if my husband or I say something ("We don't use language like that here, darling"). If we ask the kids not to pick up the dog (which we repeatedly have to do) or bring popsicles into the living room, the parents roll their eyes. If they don't correct their children, what choice do we have? They seem angry at us for our (by today's standards) more conservative lifestyle, and it has driven a wedge between us. I don't see why we can't just respect each other's boundaries and house rules, and support each other.

-Stressed Out Sister/Sister-in-law

The "wedge" you describe is a matter of family "style." You perceive the world differently from your brother and sister-in-law. When you see lip gloss on a young child you think inappropriate; they think cute. You have different levels of tolerance for chaos and disarray. No wonder spending time in each other's homes has become increasingly challenging!

The best way to "navigate" your differences is to acknowledge that you can't change them. You can't control anyone's beliefs or behavior except your own. But if you start to act more accepting and respectful, your brother and sister-in-law might, too.

Rewind the tape. Remind yourself why you were once "excited" about your kids growing up together. You probably liked each other's company, did fun things together and didn't expect to have the same opinions and attitudes. Now you take your differences personally, and there's seething resentment on both sides.

For that to change, you need to take steps to repair the relationship. Suggest a date without the children. Be honest: "We love you and want you in our lives. But we have different ideas about family life, and it's causing tension between us. We would like to talk about it." Make it clear -- and really mean it -- that you're not trying to change them.

Lead with an apology and a promise to respect their boundaries. After all, when you "correct" their child, they take it as criticism. Admit that your anxiety sometimes gets the best of you, and that you'll try harder try not to interfere. "I can't blame you for resenting it. I'm sorry."

At the same time, let them know what would make their visits less stressful for you. For example, "I worry about Fido. He doesn't like being carried. Before you comet, could you please remind the kids that Auntie allows you to pet the dog but not pick him up. And when you're here, if they forget, rather than my saying something, would you?"

Stop hoping that they'll back you up. Time and again they haven't -- either because they don't see what you see or don't care as much. Instead, ask for their support ("Could you make sure Bobby eats his popsicle in the kitchen. It's a new couch").

Also consider relaxing your standards. If you give a little, your brother and sister-in-law are bound to be a lot less defensive and angry. How damaging -- really -- is it for your kids to share a bag of Doritos with their cousins? Every interaction feeds or starves a relationship. Making small concessions can help turn the tide.

Take on more "loaded" issues, like video game use, slowly and carefully. Don't lecture; listen to what they have to say, too. There really is no right and wrong here; just difference. Perhaps, you can come up with ideas that work for both of you, such as a time limit, after which all electronics are put away.

You might need several adult "dates" to regain your trust and to work out all the kinks. In the meantime, perhaps it's best to be with the kids in a neutral zone where you all can have fun -- and no dogs or couches will be damaged in the process!

Have a family question for Melinda Blau? Tweet #DearFamilyWhisperer or email DearFamilyWhisperer@familywhispering.com. Check back next week to see if your question is featured! Real names will not be used, no topics off limits. Adults and children welcome. These columns are brief. You'll find more on this topic in FAMILY WHISPERING, co authored by Melinda and (the late) Tracy Hogg. Also check out the website: FamilyWhispering.com and follow @MelindaBlau.