Grandparenting can be a major source of fulfillment for you and your grandchild. But it doesn’t come with a job description, and like many grandparents, you may find yourself uncertain of your role within the family.
Just as every family is different, so is the role of every grandparent. Many factors contribute, from your personal style to the family’s unique dynamics and circumstances to the needs of the present moment. Ideally, you live nearby and can be an active and positive force in your grandchild’s life and a helpful resource for the parents, whether to lend an empathetic ear in times of need, a watchful eye when parents are out, or a heart of unconditional love and support.
Whatever your grandparenting situation, these tips and guidelines can help you find your place and adapt to the inevitable challenges that will arise.
What Children Can Receive from Their Relationships with Grandparents
A close relationship benefits the health and wellbeing of both grandparent and grandchild. For grandchildren, the biggest gift of this all-important bond is the endless supply of love, acceptance, patience, and unwavering support that grandparents uniquely have to offer. In healthy relationships, grandkids can find in their grandparents a safe harbor—someone they trust and know is always on their side. This extra layer of support can have lasting positive effects on the child’s emotional wellbeing.
What Grandparents Receive from Healthy Relationships with Grandkids
Becoming a grandparent can be life changing—an adrenaline shot that restores your energy, optimism, youthfulness, and sense of purpose. Recent studies also show that emotional closeness between grandparents and grandchildren can protect against depression, boost brain function, and lead to a longer life.
What is the Role of the Grandparents in the Family
How can you and your grandchild reap all the wonderful benefits of your special relationship? As a grandparent, you have many gifts to share, and can be a positive influence in many ways. Here are some of the roles grandparents play along with tips on how to cultivate them:
Historian–As elders, grandparents hold the key to the family’s history, and can offer grandchildren insight into their heritage that provides a sense of belonging.
- Tell stories about yourself, relatives, events, and family traditions.
- Share pictures, old family recipes, and newspaper clips.
- Take a family history trip.
- Create a family tree with pictures.
Nurturer–Grandparents provide a safe harbor for their grandkids, helping them feel loved and secure, which can be especially beneficial in times of difficulty or stress. Your total acceptance and loving support will be gifts your grandchildren will cherish always.
- Keep an open door
- Welcome their confidences
- Listen nonjudgmentally
Mentor–With their years of life experience, grandparents can serve as a loving advocate, guiding their grandchildren along the path of life. You can encourage in your grandchildren a sense of self worth that gives them a strong start and helps them rise to life’s challenges.
- Offer your encouragement
- Believe in their dreams
- Nurture their strengths
Playmate–Grandparents can be a friend and fun-loving playmate in the lives of their grandchildren—and their grandchildren will love and remember them for it!
- Take the time to engage in imaginative play
- Go to the park or movies
- Enjoy the exuberant energy of your grandchildren, whatever they may be up to
Role model–Grandchildren often look up to their grandparents as worthy models for how to live life. Your good example will instill positive values for your grandchildren to emulate.Your actions speak volumes:
- About how to relate
- What’s right and what’s wrong
- What is important and what is not
Spiritual guide–This is a powerful role that can have a profound and lasting effect on your grandchild’s life. Teach your grandchildren to appreciate the qualities of compassion, tolerance, kindness, gentleness, and love, and demonstrate these qualities in your own action and speech.
- Spend time together in nature
- Engage in charitable activities together
- Listen to your grandchildren’s ideas about the meaning of life
Teacher–One of the greatest gifts that grandparents have to give is their time—time that presents the opportunity to pass on their knowledge, wisdom, and life experience as well as practical skills.
- As teacher, your curriculum can be your own, but be sure anything you share about values, religion, and lifestyle also aligns with the parents’ beliefs.
Caregiver–Grandparents can make wonderful babysitters, and childcare is expensive, so parents will probably appreciate whatever time you have to give. For some grandparents, caregiving is a full-time job, but it’s more common for grandparents to offer care sporadically—such as when the parents have a night out or the usual childcare is unavailable.
- Caregiving = opportunity to love, teach, talk and inspire
Student–While there may be much you may have to offer your grandchildren, grandparenting presents a learning opportunity for you, too.
- Grandparenting groups, classes, books and magazines can inform you of the latest childrearing developments, provide a network of support, and help you learn from others.
- Pay attention to pearls of wisdom your grandchildren have to share
Working Out Your Role
Many factors will come into play as you work out your grandparenting role:
- What kind of grandparent do you want to be? What role or roles do you naturally gravitate toward?
- What kind of grandparent would the parents like you to be? What are their needs, and how can you be supportive of them?
- How much time do you realistically have to spend with your grandchildren—and how much of a presence do you want to be in their lives?
- What are you willing and able to do?
- Do you live nearby or is distance a factor?
- Are the family dynamics open and easy or is there conflict you need to navigate?
Talk to the parents about their ideas for your role, and share yours with them. Be clear about your choices, air any concerns, and keep the lines of communication open.
As you work out your role, always remember that the parents are in charge. You may have raised your own children differently, but unless you become the primary caregiver, raising your grandchildren is the parents’ job, not yours. Abide by the rules and routines they establish for their children. Refrain from offering advice unless requested, and even then, do so with caution. Unsolicited advice can lead to family conflict that can interfere with your relationship with the parents and therefore your grandchild.
Setting Your Boundaries as a Grandparent
It’s also okay to set limits based on what and how much you want to do. You may welcome the opportunity to care for your grandchildren and happily make sacrifices upon occasion, but don’t give up other enjoyable aspects of your life because you’ve become a grandparent. If you really don’t want to babysit or commit to ongoing childcare, say so. If you end up paying for expenses, consider your own financial security and ask for reimbursement if necessary. Setting clear boundaries and practicing clear communication will help you and the parents understand one another and prevent resentments from arising.
Your Changing Role
Families change in myriad ways. Grandchildren get older and their interests and needs change. Parents have a new baby, get divorced, or return to work after a family leave. Your life may change, because of work, social engagements, your health or any number of other reasons.
As a result, you may find yourself spending more or less time with your grandchildren, or providing extra support to their parents during times of difficulty or change. Be open and willing to revisit your role as circumstances evolve and to give more or less of yourself, depending on the family’s needs as well as your own.
Grandparents Are an Extra Layer of Protection
Stress and disruption are inevitable in every family’s life and can be a source of worry and distress for your grandchildren. Your presence can provide the extra buffer of care and attention they need when they’re feeling confused or uncertain.
You probably have more time and patience than busy parents do, and may offer a more objective perspective by virtue of your age and distance from the immediate family. By just being there and listening, your grandkids will feel that you’ve got their back—and that can help them move through challenges with greater resilience.
When Financial Help Is Needed
Many grandparents are also a financial safety net, helping out with everything from the grandchild’s school expenses to vacations, meals, and college savings. Sometimes families need the financial assistance; at other times, grandparents are all too happy to extend their generosity because it makes them feel good, and their families (and grandchildren) appreciate it, too. Just be careful to take your own financial wellbeing into account.
Helping Out in Smaller Ways
You don’t need to write a check to make a difference in your grandchild’s life. Little things done with love count for a lot, like picking up your grandchildren from school, staying with them when they’re sick, or taking them back-to-school shopping. They help build a bond between you and show your grandchildren you’re there for them.
Grandparenting can be a joyous time of your life, but it’s not all rosy all the time for everyone. You can face some tough challenges. These are some of the family circumstances that can test your mettle and what you can do about them.
Grandparenting can be complicated by past issues that put emotional distance between you and your adult children. This can mean not having the contact you wish to have with your grandchildren, which can be heartbreaking.
If you can know what caused the family breach, take some time to evaluate the circumstances and behavior, and do whatever you can to restore relations. If you were at fault, apologize. Apologize even if you weren’t at fault. Consider family counseling if parents are agreeable. If these measures don’t help, the problem may be beyond your control, but do what you can to stay in touch in a non-obtrusive way. Spend whatever time you can with your grandchildren, and send them cards and letters to keep your relationship alive. Let your good intentions be known. Your relationships may repair with time.
Abuse, Alcoholism, Drug Addiction, Mental Health Issues
Grandparents who are abusive or have a history of drug or alcohol addiction may pose physical, mental and emotional risks to their grandchildren. Parents may be justified in denying them contact, or in allowing visitation under strictly controlled conditions. The same is true for grandparents who suffer mental health issues, depending on the illness and its severity. Parents always need to be considering what is in the best interest of their children, and sometimes that may mean one grandparent plays a minimal role, or none at all.
It’s a fact of modern-day life: families can live hundreds or thousands of miles away from each other and visit in person only on holidays or vacations. But even if you’re a long-distance grandparent, technology can help you remain close to your grandchildren. Videoconferencing, email, and social media are next-best options to being together in person.
When parents divorce, it can take time for everyone to adjust. Grandparents can be an emotional sanctuary, offering support to their adult child and care their grandkids need in a difficult time.
- Be there to lend a sympathetic ear and offer practical day-to-day help, such as babysitting, grocery shopping, or cooking a meal.
- Keep up your usual schedule with your grandchildren. Share fun activities they enjoy. Gently ask about any emotions or fears they may be having, but don’t force the subject. Simply letting them know you’re always there if they need to talk can be reassuring.
- Remain neutral. It’s normal for you to take sides, but taking sides is not helpful for your grandchildren. Encourage their love of both parents.
- If your ex-in-law prevents you from seeing your grandchildren, some states allow you to petition the court for visitation rights. Unfortunately, though, such cases are often not successful and their adversarial nature can further strain family relationships.
Grandparents Raising Their Grandchildren
Some grandparents end up raising their grandchildren. This situation may be due to the natural parent’s death, disease or disability, addiction, job situation, mental instability, or incarceration. Custodial grandparenting, when grandparents assume fulltime responsibility for their grandchildren, probably presents the most difficult form of grandparenting. The grandchildren are missing out on a relationship with their parents as well as a normal relationship with their grandparents. There may also be legal and financial issues, and emotional strain for both grandparents and grandchild.
Two Different Worlds
Parents and children of today face a very different world than those of the previous generation. Childrearing methods have evolved, and research and new technologies have brought changes to how things are done. For example, babies are put to sleep on their backs, car seats are required by law, and smoking around children is strongly discouraged. To freshen up your skills and knowledge, attend a grandparenting class, have a conversation with a pediatrician, or read books and magazines on the topic.
What Are the Grandparent’s Responsibilities?
Unless you’re invited to assume parenting responsibilities, it’s always important to remember that the parents are in charge and to respect their decisions and guidelines even if you don’t agree with them. However, there are some times when it’s appropriate to intervene.
- Abusive situation—It’s vital that you step in. Talk to the parents. And if your grandchild is in danger, consider contacting the police or your state’s child protective services department. Most states also have a toll-free number you can call to report abuse and get help for the family.
- Unhealthy relationship patterns—For example, a parent belittling your grandchild or making disparaging comments. Your grandchild needs kind reassurance and perspective, and the parent needs to understand the damage they are causing. If it’s a chronic thing, encourage the parent to get counseling help.
- Child’s habits—If you’re concerned about the child’s habits, such as foods, screen time, or bedtimes, it’s fine to talk about them with the parents. But remember, they still have the final say.
Additionally, it’s fine for you to take matters into your own hands if the child’s:
- Parents say you can or are not present
- Behavior directly affects you
- Safety is at stake
- Breaking the rules of your house
Guidelines on Effective Discipline for Grandparents
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends these guidelines for disciplining your grandchild:
- Establish a positive, supporting and loving relationship with your grandchildren. Otherwise, they’ll have no reason other than fear to demonstrate good behavior.
- Use positive reinforcement to increase the behavior you want from your grandchildren. Praise them when the do the right thing.
- Use clear language and an even tone. Keep your cool even if your grandchild has a temper tantrum.
- Be patient. Your grandchild’s behavior may not change overnight.
- If you feel discipline is necessary, avoid physical punishment such as spanking, which can teach aggressive behavior and anger. Instead, use time-outs for young children and temporarily remove favorite privileges, such as TV time, for older children.
Standard House Rules
When your grandchildren are at home, the parents’ house rules apply. When they’re visiting you, your house rules are the ones to follow. Just make sure your rules are not too restrictive or your family might not want to visit. It’s entirely reasonable to ask your grandkids to keep their shoes off the furniture, and not run, shout, fight, or slam doors in the house.
Grandparenting is a journey of love—one that requires your flexibility, adaptability, patience, and commitment. It’s unlikely you’ll ever get it down perfectly, but recognizing the possibilities and challenges and making thoughtful decisions along the way can make it rewarding and fulfilling for everyone.
Grandparent Reflection: Now that you’re enjoying grandparenthood, take a moment…think back to the relationship you had with your grandparent’s. How does it compare to the role you play with your grandchildren. Is it different? The same? Let us know. Join the discussion and leave a comment below.