Building healthy relationships with your grandchildren
As a grandparent, you can play many important roles in your grandchildren’s lives. One survey of American families found that most grandparents fix meals and provide financial support to their grandchildren. However, grandparenting can go far beyond these material contributions. From words of wisdom to play to emotional support, as a grandparent you have lots to offer the younger generations in your family.
It all starts with fostering a healthy relationship with your grandchildren, by dedicating time and effort to better connect with your family. This could mean visiting your grandchildren more often, planning trips together, or simply making weekly calls or texts, or writing the occasional card or letter. As you’ll start to see, the results are well worth the effort.
What’s so grand about grandparenting?
In no particular order, grandparenting is an opportunity to play, to love someone new, to appreciate the magic of a developing mind, and to be needed by someone again. Grandparents can:
- Share the things they’re passionate about with a new audience.
- See the world in a new way through younger eyes.
- Experience games, music, nature, reading, and other interests in conjunction with a curious young mind.
- Provide expanded support and encouragement to their grandchildren.
- Use their breadth of experience to avoid the pitfalls they may have encountered as parents the first time around.
- Watch children develop through all stages of growth.
- Learn about their grandkids’ music and passions.
- Provide input that parents cannot.
Usually, grandparents have the benefit of interacting on a level that is once removed from the day-to-day responsibilities of parents. This can make it easier to develop a close bond with grandchildren. From near or far, grandparenting can provide continuity in a child’s life. Grandparents are often family historians and can add a rich sense of family tradition to a child’s life.
Additionally, contact with grandparents can teach children positive attitudes toward aging and help them develop skills to enhance their own lifelong learning. A child’s sense of security and well-being is also boosted by positive interactions with their elders. One study from the University of Oxford found that when grandparents are more engaged with grandchildren, those children have fewer behavioral and emotional issues. Other research has shown that close ties with grandparents can improve a grandchild’s emotional resilience.
Of course, not everything about being a grandparent is great all of the time. Becoming a grandparent at a young age can make some people feel prematurely old and, just as parents do, grandparents sometimes have to deal with colicky babies and moody teenagers. For most though, the benefits of being a grandparent far outweigh the drawbacks. Being involved in your grandchildren’s lives can be emotionally gratifying by making you feel useful to your family and fostering a stronger sense of belonging. Some research even suggests that noncustodial grandparenting—that is, playing a supportive role in caregiving but not having to raise your grandchildren—can help you live a longer life.
The role of a grandparent in a child’s life
Grandparents can play many different roles, depending on the family configuration and needs. Some grandparenting requires a full-time commitment. For others, grandparenting is a weekend together, an afternoon play date, a summer vacation, a chat on the phone, or a text or email exchange every now and then.
A good first step to a long and successful relationship with your grandchild is to establish some ground rules with their parents:
- Be clear about what role you want to have in your grandchild’s life. Let them know how often you want to babysit, for example, or whether you’d like to be included in events such as school functions.
- Talk with parents about their rules. Consistency is important for kids, so know the behavior limits your grandchild has to follow at home and maintain those rules when they are with you.
- Enforce any agreed upon punishment for bad behavior, whether it’s a “time out” or loss of privileges, for example.
- Babyproof your home to ensure safety for infants and toddlers. Since it’s probably been a number of years since you had young children in your home, check with your grandchild’s parents about ways to babyproof your home, so they’re comfortable leaving the child with you.
Common grandparenting pitfalls to avoid
Whatever your specific circumstances, when you are expressing love, showing concern for your grandchild’s safety and well-being, and being consistent in your behavior, you are probably already doing an excellent job of grandparenting.
To avoid potential conflict within your family, try to avoid these common grandparenting pitfalls:
- Trying to be the parent. As much as you might want to tell your children how to raise your grandkids, it’s not your role. Respect the parenting decisions your children make for your grandkids.
- Buying your grandkids’ affection. It’s tempting for grandparents to shower their grandkids with gifts, but check with the child’s parents before you buy more toys. Maybe substitute some of your gift giving with activities instead. Do something with your grandchild that you both love and will build memories. Shower them with love instead of gifts.
- Overindulging the first few grandchildren and then not being able to repeat it as additional grandchildren come along. This can cause resentment from your own children who have kids later in life. Remember that whatever you do for your first grandchild (college fund, beach vacations, trips to the zoo) will set a precedent that you might feel pressured to repeat for every other grandchild.
- Ignoring boundaries. A grandparent who won’t enforce limits and gives in to their grandchild’s every whim can infuriate parents. By allowing your grandkids to misbehave, overindulge in candy and junk food, or ignore bedtimes, for example, you’re only encouraging unhealthy behavior and making their parents’ job even harder.
Tips for spending quality time with your grandkids
The best grandparenting activities flow naturally from the interests of both the grandparents and the grandchildren. You can create a deep, loving relationship with your grandchildren by sharing the things you love with them and by being available to hear about the ideas and activities that excite them.
Take it easy together. Make an effort to enjoy leisure time with your grandchildren. As a grandparent, you get to interact with your grandchildren without the same daily pressures of a parent—you don’t have to worry about driving carpool or juggling making dinner for the family with soccer practice and grocery shopping. Allow yourself to slow down and become really absorbed in an activity. Moving at a slower pace than usual can give children a sense that time can be ‘stretched’—that you don’t need to hurry through activities. And, as with adults, it gives them the space to feel, reflect, and express emotions without feeling rushed.
Get outside. Children love the outdoors, and trips to the park or the beach can be a great jumping off point for some wonderful adventures and happy memories. Nature walks and day hikes can provide lots of interesting things to talk about, and water activities can be especially fun. Throwing stones into the water or watching the current play with sticks are simple activities that can be fascinating to children. You can start these activities when kids are toddlers and expand the games as they get older.
Share your interests or your work. Engaging in hobbies and activities that you love or your grandchild loves can be a great way to spend time together and learn about each other. Sometimes, activities that you might not expect your grandchildren to be interested in, such as knitting or gardening, can turn out to provide an important point of connection. Similarly, if you take an interest in something they are passionate about, such as video games or the Harry Potter books, they get to share their special area of knowledge and may open up in new ways.
If you are still working, a visit to your place of work can add a dimension to your grandchild’s perception of you. If you are retired, pictures and stories about what your working days were like can do the same.
Making the most of your grandparenting time
- Carve out one-on-one time. On occasion, spend time with individual grandchildren. It will give you an opportunity to bond, without competition, with one grandchild at a time.
- See the sights. Concerts and plays, movies, science centers and museums, parks, or walks in the neighborhood provide opportunities to be together and to exchange ideas and opinions.
- Play games. Board and card games are a unique opportunity to watch kids in action and to see how they operate in the world. Games also allow you to help your grandchild learn to be a good sport and play fairly.
- Communicate family history. Tell stories about games or trips you shared when the grandchild’s parents were young. This is a great way to weave a ‘tapestry’ of shared experiences for the whole family.
Grandparenting on the road
Taking a trip with your grandchildren or sharing your love of a favorite place will help you create special memories together. Trips, whether it’s a day trip to a national park, a weekend in a nearby city, or a week-long resort vacation, will always be remembered by the child as special journeys with grandma or grandpa.
One of the great advantages of traveling with your grandchild is the opportunity for both of you to be away from home. Being on the road can mean being free of chores, errands, work—any familiar routine. It means all kinds of possibilities for the unexpected—even on the best-planned trip. All the chances to read train and bus schedules, ride a ferry, stay in a motel or B&B, eat out, or have lots of picnics, offer opportunities to discover new parts of the world, yourself, and your grandchildren.
Involve your grandchildren in planning the trip, and of course, involve their parents to be sure they’re comfortable with the plans. Then hit the road! After you’ve traveled, a scrapbook of that experience can be an ongoing delight for everyone in the family.
Tips for traveling with grandchildren
- Don’t take all the grandkids at once. Most grandparents do best handling one grandchild each. If you are part of a couple, that means taking two grandchildren. If you’re a single grandparent, maybe take each grandchild out separately or ask a friend to help you.
- Look for a destination with built-in babysitting. If you think you might need a break from looking after your grandkids, pick a hotel or resort with babysitting facilities or group activities for kids.
- Consult the specialists. If you’re unsure how best to plan a trip with your grandchildren, there are a number of specialist organizations that offer packages and tours designed for grandparents and grandchildren.
- Brainstorm day trip ideas. Even when traveling away from home, you’ll need to come up with ideas to keep kids occupied. Most children love visiting aquariums, science museums, water parks, theme parks, and special holiday events.
It’s estimated that about 50 percent of grandparents live more than 200 miles from their grandchildren. Children’s lives can change very quickly, so long-distance grandparents sometimes struggle trying to keep up with the day-to-day details of their grandkids’ lives. Often, it just requires special efforts to communicate with your grandchild. Those efforts will help establish the foundation for a strong long-term relationship.
When your grandchild is a baby, toddler, or very young child, engage the parents to keep up to date on your grandchild’s progress, their current interests, and the type of reading or viewing material that might be appropriate. When the child is old enough to interact, whether on the phone, FaceTime, or regular mail, start engaging the child directly.
Grandparenting in the digital age
Technology can add a whole new dimension to long-distance grandparenting. Texting, messaging, social media, email, and video conferencing can all help to shrink the miles and keep you in touch with your grandchildren. Use the available technology to engage your grandchild in creative activities rather than simply asking, “How’s school?” For example, you can play online games with your grandchild, start an online book club or fantasy sports league with them, or share videos of enjoying a favorite hobby. Try exchanging jokes or favorite family recipes, or have them share report cards or photos of pictures they’ve drawn.
Other ways to stay connected with grandchildren
As well as the Internet, there are plenty of other ways to help long-distance grandparenting:
- Phone calls. Try calling (or video chatting) at a regular time when your grandchild is not rushed and has time to talk. When talking to your grandchildren, make notes about their interests, books they’ve been reading, doll’s name—anything you can repeat in the next conversation so they know you’ve been listening.
- Snail mail. Even before a child can read, they will be able to recognize their name on an envelope and will love the feeling of importance implied by receiving mail.
- Audio or video recordings. You can record yourself reading a few of your favorite children’s books and send the recording along with the books. Or you can use Facetime, Zoom, or another video platform to read the books to your grandchild in real-time.
- Family scrapbooks. Kids love to hear stories about their family. If you can’t be with them to recount family stories firsthand, try writing them down. Add photos or create a scrapbook. You can also take your picture-sharing online with platforms like Instagram. Create a private account that your family can view together. Encourage your grandkids to add their own memories and photos.
All of these small things communicate your interest and love. Whenever possible, though, try to be present for the most important events in your grandchild’s life, such as graduations, recitals, holidays, or whatever events are important to your family.
Divorce, death of parents, or a parent’s work or school-related responsibilities are just a few of the reasons some grandparents assume full- or part-time responsibility for their grandchildren. Often known as “kinship care,” a growing number of grandparents are taking on the parenting role of their grandchildren, thus foregoing the traditional grandparent/grandchild relationship.
Grandparents who assume the role of parents often find themselves giving up leisure time, the option of traveling, and many other aspects of their independence. Instead, they take on responsibility for the day-to-day maintenance of a home, schedules, meals, homework, and play dates. In cases where tragedy requires a grandparent to step into the role of parent, there are also many additional stress factors—grieving on the part of the children and the grandparents, for example—that need to be addressed.
While it can be more stressful than playing a part-time role in your grandchildren’s lives, raising your grandchildren can also be incredibly rewarding. Grandparents in this position experience much greater connection to their grandkid’s world, including school and leisure activities. They often find themselves rolling back the years, rejuvenated by the constant companionship of much younger people. They also derive immense satisfaction providing their grandchildren with a safe, nurturing, and structured home environment in which to grow and feel loved.
Some circumstances make it necessary for grandparents to seek legal help. If there’s been a divorce, death of one parent, estrangement, or the suspicion that your grandchildren are being neglected or abused, you may want to consult a lawyer or advocacy group to ensure access to your grandchildren.
Two issues arise with regard to grandparenting: custody and visitation. In either event, the goal is to maintain the children’s connection to a family beyond the nuclear family. Read: Legal and Custody Help for Grandparents Raising Grandkids.
Have you married another grandparent? Have your kids become stepparents? Step-grandparenting has grown as a family phenomenon because of the growing number of blended families.
As with all aspects of blended families, step-grandparenting can present awkward moments, and create complex relationships—especially if there are already other grandparents in the picture. Children might feel the need to be loyal to the original grandparents and conflicted about giving and receiving affection in the new relationship. With patience, understanding, and open communication, though, a step-grandparent can become an important part of a blended family, and a new friend for a child to love.
Tips for step-grandparents:
- Learn all you can about blended families and understand stepfamily problems.
- Get to know each stepchild as an individual.
- Give everybody time to adjust to the new blended family.
- Be patient, supportive, loving, caring, and non-competitive.
- Reserve a special place for your step-grandchild’s things at your home.
- Don’t expect to love your step-grandchildren instantly. Affection takes time.
- Even if you don’t like your step-grandchildren, at least treat them with respect.
- Family customs differ from family to family, so be flexible in your grandparent behavior.
- Talk over problems with a close friend, therapist, or support group.
Whether you’re a full-time grandparent, a step-grandparent, or a long-distance grandparent living thousands of miles away, you can strengthen family ties and provide your grandchildren with joyful memories and valuable life lessons. And, in doing so, you may also cultivate a greater sense of purpose and even learn a few new things yourself.
Last updated or reviewed on April 26, 2023