“Grandchildren are God’s way of compensating us for growing old,” is a quote by Mary H. Waldrip which anyone who is a grandparent is sure to appreciate. Grandchildren make our hearts swell; they restore our sense of joy and hope; they replenish our energy and creativity. In short, grandchildren make us feel younger in every way.
However, as a therapist who has worked with families of young children for many years, and as a grandparent, I also know that being a grandparent can oftentimes be challenging for a variety of reasons.
It is not always easy being a grandparent. Sometimes we don’t get to see our grandchildren as often as we would like, and sometimes we care for them so often that it’s hard to have enough time for ourselves. In my experience working with families, I recognize that it’s often hard for grandparents to manage the relationships with their son or daughter and respective daughter- or son-in-law. There are often disagreements about how best to raise children, and it is challenging for grandparents to respect and follow parents’ rules and parenting strategies. I heard grandparents complain that parents are too authoritarian, and parents complain that their children’s grandparents are typically too permissive—though this is often expressed in the reverse, as well. For the love of children, the tension lies in everyone wanting to believe that they know best, while, in actuality, raising children is a journey of experimentation and learning that never ends.
Positive and on-going communication is always crucial; without it, children are the ones who end up suffering, as children can sense tension. Children can grow up confused and insecure when grandparents and parents don’t work through their differences.
So how does a grandparent deal with difficult situations, such as when a disagreement arises over the dinner table over whether a child should be allowed to get up when his or her plate is only half emptied? A parent may threaten the child, warning that he or she will not be allowed any other food in the evening, whereas a grandparent may feel it is perfectly fine for his grandchild to want to stop eating and continue later when he or she feels hungry. Is it appropriate for a grandparent to begin a discussion at the table, or later that day, or would it be better to not say a word?
This is just one example of a case when a child’s emotional being is at stake. If a grandparent reacts at the table, an argument could ensue. this could result in a child feeling either guilty or all-powerful (look at all the ruckus I can make happen!) and also manipulative, depending on the outcome. If the parent ‘wins,’ the child may feel badly for his or her grandparent; if the grandparent ‘wins,’ the child may realize that the opportune time to rebel is when his parents are in the presence of his grandparent(s). In either case, the child experiences confusion about rules, in general, and the underlying message is that rules are meant to be discussed, argued about, and sometimes broken.