The Taconic Counseling Group

Marsha L. Shelov, Ph.D.

Successful Grandparenting

As with many of life's multiple transitions, becoming a grandparent involves changes in one's self image, as well as complex feelings, and adaptation to new roles.   Many transitions in life, even the joyous ones such as weddings and graduations, contain happiness and joy but also some sadness and loss.  This can also be true of the transition into being a grandparent.  Keep in mind that there is no correct way to feel, and that however you react, it is your reaction to understand and explore.  While the most talked about experience is the emergence of total joy at this new birth, for many this new transition signals feelings about aging and mortality. The accepted cultural expectation of immediate unconditional love for this newest family member does not always occur instantly and sometimes connecting to the new baby is more complicated.  Of course, you will increasingly love your grandchild but there are many other issues and feelings that arise.


The image of yourself as a parent expands to include becoming a grandparent.  This change poses several questions.  What does it mean to become a grandparent? What if I do not feel ready to become a grandparent? Am I really old enough to be a grandparent?  How come this life experience is no longer primarily about myself and my children?  Am I really old enough to be my parent's generation?  Where do I fit in? What does this mean for my relationship with my children?  What do I want my relationship with my grandchild to be?  Where in my schedule do I make room?  And how much can I control the contact I have?


Embedded in these questions is the connection to, and expansion of, your underlying sense of identity.  The sense of self as a grandparent is rooted in childhood.  The definition of being a grandparent evolved from being a grandchild and/or experiencing and witnessing grandparent-grandchild relationships.  These early impressions and experiences have been stored in your memory as part of your identity and will influence the choices you will want to make as you begin this new adventure.  If you have had positive experiences you will almost automatically know how to start;  if you have had negative experiences you will likely know what not to do.  The more aware you are of your early experiences and your underlying preconceptions, the more conscious the choices you will be able to make.


As you think through your own grandparent identity concerns, the issues are even more complicated because your relationship to your grandchild is embedded in your relationship with your child and with his or her spouse.  Your children are the gatekeepers to a successful relationship with their child.   Thus the relationship to your child requires close attention and respect.  Tensions at the birth of a child are often high.  It is a time of joy as well as anxiety. Remember that your child is going through the transition to becoming a parent at the same time that you are becoming a grandparent.  New parents and grandparents are understandably a bit confused about assuming their new roles and about defining the boundaries between these roles. 


One of the most frequent conflicts between parents and grandparents occurs when the boundaries of authority and responsibility are usurped.  When a grandchild is born, both parent and child are catapulted into a profoundly new situation. The new young family begins the process of setting up their own family household and boundaries.  It is up to the child's parents to determine how they will care for their new baby, and it is up to the grandparents to respect the parents' right to make their own mistakes and learn from them. Then add to this mix the fact that in most cases there are two sets of grandparents, which also creates the possibility for further emotional strains.  Even though a major issue confronting the new family is the creation of a boundary that allows the new parents to begin their parenting job together, these new parents are also your children and still need your love and support..  They want to know that you respect their right to make decisions and appreciate their support of your relationship with your grandchild.


Conflicts and problems between parents and grandparents occur for many reasons. Three of the most common sources of strain are the following:  1. First, a general disagreement over issues such as childrearing or religion. 2. Second, personality conflicts between grandparents and daughter-in-law or son-in-law.  3. Third, the problems due to old resentments and unresolved parent-child issues that flow down into the next generation.


As with most conflicts, the key to easing the situation and resolving them lies in communication.  As grandparents, be proactive and help set a tone of receptivity.  Let your children know that you are willing to hear what they are feeling.   Examine and explore the part that you are playing in the conflict.  Remember what your experience was like when you were in your children's position.  Tell your children you want to talk things through and you want to discuss differences.  Validate that although you may disagree, the decisions regarding their child's well-being is theirs to make.  Talk about things.  Let your children know, whenever possible, that they are doing a good job.  Parenting and supporting your children does not end when you become a grandparent to their children.


As these complicated identity and family issues arise and are worked through, it will free all concerned to embrace the many wonderful roles that grandparents can have in relation to their grandchildren and children.


You are first and foremost a nurturer.  Nurturing as a grandparent is an extension of your parental nurturing role into the next generation.  You have a second opportunity to express your unconditional love, this time without having to have the parental responsibility of teaching values and discipline.  You can be just present and express love while keeping your grandchild safe.  


You embody the family ancestral line and, as such, represent the link to the family's history.  You represent all that came before your grandchild, the living connection to her history.  Sharing memories and stories of family stories allows you to make the past part of the present.


You can be a buddy.  You can be a pal to your grandchild because you do not have the day-to-day worries of your grandchild's upbringing, allowing you to be creative and develop adventures and games.


You can be a role model.  You are actively creating the next generation of grandparents.  You can demonstrate the complex role of being a grandparent and parent at the same time.


You can be spiritual guide connecting with your grandchild to your deepest dimension of self.   You can share the sense of love, reverence, peace, faith and kindness that exists within you with your grandchild.


You can be a teacher and student.  Grandparents can impart all we have learned throughout our lifetime; our understanding of relationships, our areas of interest, work, and expertise.  In turn our grandchildren offer us opportunities to keep up with the world.  They can be our guide to the new ideas of their generation, including computers, dvds, movies, and whatever new technologies are on the horizon.


As with many of the transitions you go through in life, there exists the possibility of revisiting old issues with your children.  Your adult children now have a new perspective on parenting. The love, the worries, and the demands of parenting, open their eyes to the difficulties you went through as their parents.  As you offer your support, and your time and as you nurture their child, your children will often begin to see you with new appreciation and love.  Try to take this opportunity to enrich your lives and theirs.  Research has shown that children who have grandparents participating in their lives fare better throughout childhood and later in life.


Additional Reading:


The Grandparent Guide by Arthur Kornhaber,  M.D.