Becoming a grandparent – what should you expect?

As your own children grow up and begin to start their own families, you might find that you’re taking on a new role in your life – the role of a grandparent. This can be a daunting task, as you navigate the role you want to (or can) play, and figure out ways to bond with the new little one in your life. Here, we speak to David Anderson of Associated Counsellors & Psychologists Sydney about the ways you can prepare for this role, and the ways you can tackle some of the potential challenges a grandparent might face.

What are some of the challenges a new grandparent should be prepared for?

For new grandparents, it’s often been many years since they’ve had the experience of tending to young children or babies. Taken together with the reality of an older body, the intense emotional and physical demands that young kids can bring can be significant! It’s really a matter of preparing yourself by thinking about your priorities in advance of making a significant commitment. For many new grandparents this is quite an emotional tussle – seeing themselves perhaps as a willing support to their kids, but juggling this with their desire to freely pursue their other interests.

What are some of the best ways to maximise time with your new grandchild?

The best way to bond with your new grandchild is just to spend some quality one-on-one time with them. Put your hand up to bath them, feed them or put them to bed whenever the opportunity arises. By providing this support and spending time with them regularly, it will not only make you feel needed and appreciated, but it will also help the child feel emotionally close to you and safe with you.

As they get older, you can play with them, read with them and sing with them, to encourage learning and further bonding. One of the best parts about being a grandparent is that you don’t have to focus on the practicalities of child rearing by assisting the child in navigating day-to-day issues, but you get to spend quality time with them, getting to know their personal likes and dislikes and providing unconditional love and acceptance.

What do you find are some of the more common struggles for new grandparents?

There are a number of common struggles that grandparents can come across. For instance, you might not be as involved in the grandchild’s life as you’d like to be or had expected to be. It may be because you live outside of the parents’ commute, or the parents become more insular with the addition to their immediate family.

You might feel like you’re expected to be too involved, that your kids come to think of you as the designated babysitter or look to you for financial support.

There will also be times that you see your children make, what you think to be, mistakes and feel the need to give them advice on how to parent. You will undoubtedly have your own ideas about what your grandchild should eat or how they should be disciplined. If you do voice your opinion, don’t be surprised if it isn’t appreciated or welcomed with open arms. This can be challenging, but try to remember what it was like when you were raising your own children.

If you find your children are expecting you to lend more of a hand than you have the time/ability for, how can you broach the subject and tackle talking about this potentially sensitive topic?

Ideally, a discussion should occur before the child is born so that you are all on the same page from day one. Start the conversation off with something positive, such as how excited you are to become a grandparent. Then, let them know about your existing commitments such as work, or future plans like retirement and travel. After this, try and relate these plans to the new baby, but focus on the things that you can do as opposed to the things that you can’t. This way, the conversation will stay positive.

Most importantly, don’t promise anything that you can’t do and try not to feel guilty about being clear about how you want to play your role as a grandparent.

What about if you want to spend more time with your grandchild but the parents have a different expectation of your role?

If you find yourself feeling left out or not playing a big enough role as you’d like in your grandchild’s life, let the parents know. But once again, frame it in a positive light. For instance, tell them that you’d love to spend more time with your grandchild. Try not to frame it negatively by saying the parents don’t give you enough access to your grandchild. Try to offer ways of spending time that fit in with your kids’ busy lives and that supports their family in some way.

For grandparents who have become full-time carers for their grandchildren, what do they find difficult or daunting?

Becoming a full-time carer for your grandchildren can feel like your whole world has been flipped upside down. If this has happened after a traumatic event or a family breakdown, you may feel grief or shame. Grandparents often find that the change from being an emotional support in the child’s life to being solely responsible for their upbringing is particularly challenging.

It’s also common for grandparents to feel nervous and unsure about their future and their ability to cope with the newfound financial, emotional and physical responsibility that comes with raising a child. All of these feelings are normal and will take some time to work through. Try and think about other people in your life that you can call on to support you as you age, and who can continue on in a parental role for the children. Also, try and find ways of calling on others for respite so you don’t burn out.

Any other general tips for being a better grandparent?

Use the opportunity to be part of your grandchild’s development from an early age. The strongest bonds are formed during infancy, so spend as much quality time as you can with your grandchild, particularly when they’re young, so that you establish a lifelong bond.

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