Professor Margaret Sims,
University of New England and Edith Cowan University.
Introduction: Why do we encourage grandparent involvement in the lives of their children and grandchildren
The world has changed. Grandparents and other family members are more likely to be living further away from each other. This means parents of today have less support upon which to call, making the job of parenting more stressful. We know that parents who are stressed are less likely to be effective, so it is important that we consider how to reduce their stress. Grandparent involvement in the lives of their children and grandchildren acts as a form of protection, buffering children against risks in their environments.
Grandparents influence grandchildren in many positive ways
Grandparents influence grandchildren’s outcomes, even when they are not directly involved in the lives of their grandchildren. For example we know that if grandmother was exposed to hazardous chemicals whilst she was pregnant, the impact of that exposure can be seen in her grandchildren. Particularly relevant for Australia, is the evidence from Western Australia that shows grandchildren of stolen children are more likely to demonstrate greater mental and physical problems than those Indigenous children who do not have a grandparent or parent who was removed under the stolen children programme.
The more involved grandparents are in the lives of their grandchildren, the more influence they have over grandchild outcomes. For example, grandparents:
transmit religious and moral beliefs to their grandchildren which influences grandchildren’s educational achievement;
buffer the impact of maternal depression on children;
living in the home can help improve mothers’ parenting skills;
living in the home can help improve the home learning environment with positive outcomes for their grandchildren’s reading skills.
Chapter 1: Grandparents getting involved
Grandparents in our modern world may contribute financially to their adult children and grandchildren. In return they receive other forms of support such as emotional and physical support. Grandparents who were more involved when their grandchildren were young are more likely to have positive and ongoing relationships when those grandchildren grow into adults. Involvement in the lives of grandchildren can consist of visits, other forms of contacts (phone, internet) and involvement in activities. Grandchildren who stay overnight at their grandparents’ house as youngsters are more likely to remain involved with their grandparents as they grow up. In some families, grandparents live with parents and grandchildren.
What impacts on grandparents’ ability to be involved?
Grandparents’ health impacts on the amount of time they can spend with their grandchildren, and what they can do with the time they spend together. Grandparents who are healthy and more able to participate in activities with their grandchildren are likely to be more satisfied with the relationships they have with the children.
Maintaining involvement with grandchildren can be difficult after divorce. Grandparents often feel left out, anxious, depressed and/or angry. Sometimes grandparents’ visiting rights are considered in divorce proceedings, but this is still relatively uncommon. New Zealand was the first country in the world (through their Children, Young Persons and Families Act of 1989) to mandate extended family involvement in decisions around child placement and since that time a number of other countries have developed legislation around kinship placement and custody.
Grandparents building loving relationships with grandchildren
Grandparents and grandchildren need to spend time together to build loving relationships that will last a life-time. It is not always easy to build these relationships but there are some simple strategies that can be used to help the process along.
Share children’s interests: talk with parents to find out children’s interests: perhaps a particular story the child likes, a rhyme or song or a game, and share these (see Example 1).
Example 1: Sharing the child’s interests
Compare the two scenarios.
1: Pierre is babysitting his grand-daughter, Brittany, and he is excited at spending time with her. As her mother leaves, Brittany is clearly unhappy. “She’ll be back later,” says Pierre. “Don’t worry, we’ll have a great time together. You know what, I’ve got a ball and I thought you might like to play ball with me.” He puts Brittany on the floor and rolls the ball to her. She ignores it. Jack tickles her foot. “Here’s the ball Brittany. Can you get it and roll it back to me?” Brittany frowns and turns away. Jack feels rejected and gets up off the floor. “Okay, I’ll leave you to play how you want.” He sits in his chair and turns on the TV.
2: Pierre is babysitting his grand-daughter, Brittany, and he has asked his daughter to bring her favourite books. He knows that she loves “The Wiggles” so he has a CD playing of Wiggles songs. When mum leaves he hugs Brittany, then sits on the sofa with her on his lap. He reaches for the familiar books. “Mummy left these for us to read together. Would you like a story?” Brittany is upset and sucking her thumb but she nods. Pierre hugs her gently then opens her favourite book and begins reading the story. By the time he is half way through Brittany is beginning to engage with the story. She stops him at one part and says: “That’s not how Mummy does it.” Pierre smiles and hugs her. “Show me how Mummy does it.”
Make routines relationship building times: Use routine tasks such nappy changing, toileting, feeding, bathing and sleeping to help build loving relationships. For example, nappy changes can be a loving one-on-one experience if you take a little time, talk about what you are doing as you change the child, play a tickle game (watch the baby’s non-verbal response and do not persist if you cannot see signs of enjoyment), perhaps do a little baby massage, and have lots of hugs (see Example 2).
Check with parents how they manage these simple routines and try to do these things in the same way, even if it is not a way that you would have chosen yourself. The aim is to use familiar routines to ensure the child feels comfortable with you. If you really want to, you can gradually change the way these routines are handled once you and the children have a secure and loving relationship but always start a new relationship doing things the way they are done at home.
Example 2: Using routines
Compare the two scenarios.
1: Mary lays Marcus on the change table. “I’m going to change your nappy, Marcus. Can you lie still for me please?” She quickly undoes the snaps and whisks the nappy out from under Marcus. Marcus starts to wriggle. Mary tries to hold him down with one hand whilst she reaches for the clean nappy. Marcus wriggles even more and begins to whine. “Hold still Marcus. This will be done in a minute,” says Mary. She lifts him and slides the clean nappy under but Marcus wriggles vigorously and she fumbles the snaps several times. “Hold still, Marcus I can’t fasten these with you moving around so much.” She holds him down firmly and Marcus begins to cry. Mary quickly snaps the nappy closed and picks him up. “There, there, it’s all over now,” she says as she carries the crying child out into the other room.
2: Mary lays Marcus on the change table. “I’m going to change your nappy, Marcus. Here, can you feel my hands on your tummy”. Mary tickles Marcus’s tummy as she undoes the snaps on the nappy. Marcus wriggles a little and smiles. “Do you like a tickle? I’ll tickle again. Let’s just get this wet nappy off and out of the way. Here we go. Now I can really tickle. Here comes my hand. See, here it comes, it’s coming. Ready. Ready. Now! Tickle. Tickle.” Mary tickles and Marcus giggles. “Do you want another tickle? Yes? My hand is coming. It’s coming. I’ve got you. Tickle. Tickle.” Marcus giggles again. “Okay we have to get this nice clean nappy on now. I’m going to lift you up and now slide the nappy under you. There it is. Can you feel it? Nice and dry. Here we go, doing up the snaps at the side. There, all done. Oh, you are all lovely and dry. Ready to get up? Up we go. Time for a hug. Ready? And Squeeeeeze. Oh that’s a lovely hug. What shall we do now?”
Be sensitive to all forms of communication: Watch children’s nonverbal communications as well as listen to their language. It is important that you develop an understanding of each child as a unique individual. Be responsive to children’s communication (both verbal and non-verbal). Try to follow children’s interests and focus (see Example 3) so that they are ‘leading’ the interactions some of the time. You can see in Example 3 how Marta does not immediately lift Zac up from his nap, but pauses to have a ‘conversation’ with him, following his interest in the teddy. In doing this she is building a loving and trusting relationship with Zac, and, at the same time, giving him lots of language and concept learning (eg the concept ‘up’). She is teaching him that he is important and that his opinions matter to her; essential learning for creating a healthy self esteem and the ability to develop empathy and caring for others.
Example 3: Following children’s lead
Compare the two scenarios.
1: Zac is lying in his cot looking at the teddy resting on the end of the cot near his feet. Marta has heard him wake and comes in to pick him up. She says: “Zac you are awake. That’s great. I’ve got lots of exciting things we can do together.” She leans over and picks him up. Zac wriggles and looks back at the cot. Maria carries him out of the room. Zac begins to cry. “What’s the matter Zac? Are you still a little tired? Oh that’s no good. Come and have a drink and a snack and I’m sure you will feel better.” Zac continues to cry.
2: Zac is lying in his cot looking at the teddy resting on the end of the cot near his feet. Marta has heard him wake and comes in to pick him up. She sees that he is lying quietly looking at the teddy and pauses. “Zac,” she says softly. He flicks a glance at her then turns back to the teddy. “You are looking at the teddy. Would you like to touch the teddy?” She gently picks up the teddy and moves it closer to Zac. Zac reaches out and takes the teddy in both hands. “You have the teddy. He feels so soft and cuddly. Do you like to cuddle the teddy?” Zac grins, looks at Marta and hugs the teddy tight. “You are giving the teddy a lovely hug. That makes teddy very happy. Can I give Zac a hug?” Zac smiles at Marta. He does not let go of the teddy but his body moves a little in her direction. Marta smiles back. “Let me hug Zac and teddy together. I’ll lift you both up for a hug. Ready now?” She reaches down but pauses as her hands reach around Zac. “Okay to lift you up for a hug now? Ready? Okay then, let’s go. Up we go, Zac and teddy coming up for a hug. Here we are now.”
The key in interacting with children is to be sensitive and responsive. This means reading the verbal and non-verbal cues children are giving you, and responding in ways that show that you are ‘listening’ and trying to understand what children are communicating (see Example 4). Use language to check out your understanding, even with new-born babies (the more language they hear that is relevant to what they are experiencing, the better they will be at understanding and using language throughout their lives).
Example 4: Sensitive and responsive interactions.
Compare the two scenarios.
1: Jack is excited about getting home and spending time with his grandson, Adam, who is staying overnight at their home. He hurries into the house to find Adam playing on the rug. He reaches down and swoops Adam up into his arms for a hug. “Hello my little man. I’m so happy you are here with us tonight. We are going to have a ball.” Adam squirms and leans away from Jack. Jack carries him over to the window and points out his boat in the back yard. “See, I have the boat here. I know you love being on the boat. I’ve got to clean it out so maybe tomorrow you can come and help me and play in the boat. What do you reckon?” Adam turns away from Jack and wriggles to get down. Rather disappointed, Jack puts him down on the floor and Adam toddles back to the rug and sits down. Jack feels sad that Adam does not appear to be looking forward to what he thought would be a great treat. He picks up the newspaper, sits down in his chair, and begins to read.
2: Jack is excited about getting home and spending time with his grandson, Adam, who is staying overnight at their home. He hurries into the house to find Adam playing on the rug. He sits on the floor next to Jack and smiles. “Hello my little man. I’m so happy you are here with us tonight. We are going to have a ball.” Adam looks up at him, smiles and reaches towards Jack. “You want a cuddle? I’d love a cuddle. Come over here then and let me hug you.” Jack reaches towards Adam but, as his hands close over Adam he pauses and checks: “You want a cuddle?” Adam leans towards him and Jack picks him up. “Oh my man, your cuddles are just wonderful. Look, I’ve got something to show you. It’s outside and we can look through the window. Wanna go and see?” He points to the window then looks as Adam. Adam smiles. “You wanna see. Okay. I’ll just put you down here for a moment so I can get up. There, I’m up. Now I can pick you up and we’ll go see. Ready?” He reaches down to Adam, pauses, and when Adam reaches up to him he picks him up. “Okay, let’s go over to the window. Here we are. Look, I have the boat here. I know you love being on the boat. I’ve got to clean it out so maybe tomorrow you can come and help me and play in the boat. What do you reckon?” Jack smiles at Adam and Adam reaches up and tugs his hair. “Oh, you wanna play rough do you. Oh yes, I think it’s time we had a fight. Let’s go back over here then. Ready?” Jack and Adam rough-house together and Adam giggles madly. He is having a great time.
Hug and cuddle appropriately: Physical contact is very important to the wellbeing of humans (and all primates). We all need lots of hugs and cuddles. Never stop cuddling your grandchildren out of fear of a child abuse allegation but DO make certain that the hugs you offer will not put you at risk of an allegation. Always hug with hands outside the clothes, and in public where others can see. If this is a particular concern for you, you may want to ensure that routine tasks such as nappy changing are also performed in public, or in places where you are visible to others even if they are not particularly paying you any attention. Talk to your children about the importance of cuddles and ensure that you have their support in offering physical affection to your grandchildren. The initial conversations may feel awkward, but in the end, it will be most useful if you all agree on ways that hugs and physical affection can be expressed.
Be friends with your children: Your relationship with your children can help you build strong relationships with your grandchildren. If your grandchildren can see that their parents trust you, and enjoy being with you, then they are more likely to be open to building a loving relationship with you. Conflict between you and your children is likely to make it more difficult for your grandchildren to bond with you. It is worth your time to discuss issues of conflict with your children and attempt to resolve them. You may end up agreeing to disagree, but if you can at least accept and tolerate your differences, this will help your grandchildren feel safe with you.
Chapter 2: Parents’ role in maintaining grandparent involvement
Parents sometimes feel conflicted about involving their parents in the lives of their children. For some, there is a strong feeling that asking for support is a failure on their part. In fact, given the pressures on parents today, recognising the need for support, and reaching out to get that support, is now considered a strength rather than a failure. In contrast, other families are more likely to expect to give and receive support from each other, so find the idea of grandparent involvement in their children’s lives normal.
Grandparents can offer a range of different supports aimed at making the lives of their children easier. Grandparents can be an important source of advice for parents and they can offer child minding. Child care can be on an occasional basis (for parents to have time-out or to attend social events) or can be more regular (for example providing regular care whilst parents are working). In Australia, around 1 in every 5 children receives some form of grandparent care at some point in their early years. In some families, where grandparents live with parents and grandchildren, the support offered is more pragmatic, ranging from domestic help to day-to-day child care.
The more contact grandparents have with their grandchildren the better the relationship they develop, and the more support they can offer parents. Parents can create opportunities for grandchildren and grandparents to spend time together and build a loving relationship. It is important to select opportunities that are likely to offer positive experiences for grandchildren and grandparents. Consider:
The venue: visiting the grandparent’s home where there are many delicate ornaments within reach of a toddler is not conducive to a relaxing visit. It might be more appropriate to meet in a local park or playground where the children can play safely and interactions with adults can be less stressful;
The time of day: getting together when a grandparent is tired will make it more difficult for the grandparent to interact positively with the children. Getting together when a toddler is ready for an afternoon sleep will have the same effect. Consider the personal schedules of your children and the grandparents and try to match times when both are likely to be at their best;
The interaction opportunities: going to a restaurant where the child is uncomfortable sitting still for any length of time, and where the noise level makes meaningful conversation difficult is not likely to enhance the adult-child relationship. Consider involving grandparents in the child’s playgroup where there are multiple play opportunities available, and where either child or grandparent can rest in a quiet corner if required. Encourage grandparent involvement in children’s activities at home, school and the community. Create family get-togethers where people can relax and enjoy each others’ company.
Parents can help grandparents connect with the children by providing grandparents with information about the child’s routines, likes and dislikes. Sharing a favourite toy, game, song or rhyme can be a positive, loving experience. Changing a nappy using the familiar routine established by parents will be reassuring for a child left in the care of a grandparent.
Sometimes parents and grandparents have different views about how children ought to be raised, and how children should behave. These conflicts may result in limited contact between grandchildren and grandparents, and a degree of family conflict that makes spending time together uncomfortable. It is important to remember that children are not necessarily harmed by experiencing two different sets of expectations and rules. Sometimes they are able to easily adapt, as long as they are clear which expectations operate in which environment. Learning to adjust their behaviour according to the context is a useful skill for children to learn. However, there may be such a wide gap between what parents and grandparents find acceptable that the only alternative is to attempt to talk about the differences. It is important to remember that this is a conversation about values, what each of you consider important, and in a values conversation there is no right and wrong. Grandparents are not wrong because they have different expectations than parents. Parents are not wrong because they have different expectations than grandparents. Both want the best for the children. You will find that focusing on the outcome – what is best for the children – will help you through the conversation. On most occasions there is common ground that can be built upon so that grandchildren and grandparents can spend quality time together. There are support services available (Family Relationship Programmes) to help parents and grandparents discuss their concerns. Where issues are particularly difficult these services can be invaluable: for example where a parent has concerns about past abuse that may or may not have been substantiated, it is important for everyone’s wellbeing that support is sought to help families balance the needs of each family member with the children’s safety and wellbeing.
One challenge for parents is maintaining grandparent contact after a divorce, particularly for the non-custodial parent. In the words of one grandparent:
Before they separated, we were seeing her [the child] for probably not every day, but every second day at the most, or out of seven days we’d probably see her five. They lived close by. But then when they separated, unfortunately she was used as a bit of a ploy and we didn’t see her for probably six to eight weeks. (Paternal grandmother, grandchild lived with mother). (cited in Kaspiew et al., 2009, p287)
Sometimes grandparents ‘take sides’ and this can escalate family conflict to the detriment of the grandchildren’s wellbeing. Again, it helps to focus on the children and their needs. Supporting the grandparent-grandchild relationship provides children stability and reassurance in their changing world.
Sometimes where grandparents have felt excluded, they have resorted to the legal system to gain access.
I see him [the grandchild] more regular now … because I won … I see him once a fortnight … But I had to go through nine months court to do it because she said I wasn’t going to see him and we tried all the mediation. I went through everything I could. (Paternal grandparent, grandchild lived with mother).(cited in Kaspiew et al., 2009, p289)
Unfortunately, court-ordered grandparent visitation is not always successful, particularly when it is against parents’ wishes. If you find yourself in this situation, it may be necessary to suppress your feelings, and focus on doing your best to make the visits work for the wellbeing of the children.
Chapter 3: A special case: grandparents raising grandchildren
A growing number of children in Australia (and indeed in other countries around the world) are being raised by grandparents due to parental absence or inability to provide an appropriate rearing environment (eg illness, death, incarceration, drug addiction). Taking responsibility for rearing your grandchildren brings with it a number of challenges. Whilst some grandparents may feel more relaxed about parenting the second-time around they are also more likely to feel stressed and tired. They may experience financial problems as they attempt to stretch pensions to meet the needs of additional family members, or, if they are still in employment, they are likely to work for more years than they might have planned, or work longer hours. The additional emotional and physical demands on them may impact negatively on their physical and mental health. These impacts may or may not be long term depending on the circumstances.
The system is not appropriately geared to support grandparent carers adequately. In fact, many grandparents experience negative attitudes associated with their caring, including prejudice from services and rejection from peers because of new limits imposed on their availability to participate in social events. Custodial grandparents are less likely to receive the support that foster parents get from the formal system and are less likely to have adequate informal support networks. Despite this, grandparent placements tend to be more stable than foster placements, which is of immense benefit to the grandchildren.
Children who need alternative placements tend to be traumatised as a result of the situation that created the need for the placement (and grandparents are themselves possibly traumatised for much the same reasons). Children whose parents are drug addicted are likely to have experienced neglect (emotional and physical) and may have experienced abuse. Grandparents may be grieving for the lifestyle chosen by their children. Children whose parents have died (and grandparents whose children have died) are likely to be experiencing grief. This means that children are likely to come into the placement with a range of emotional, social and behavioural problems that are particularly challenging to manage, problems with which grandparents may not have had to deal in raising their own children. Grandparent carers need additional support in managing these behaviours, particularly at a time when they are grieving themselves. Where these challenges can be addressed, outcomes for children are positive, however, where grandparents are not supported, outcomes for children may not be as good. Grandparents may benefit from support groups where they can network with other grandparent carers, facilitated access to formal support, case management support and advocacy.
The complexity of the legal issues facing custodial grandparents add to the stresses they experience. Some grandparents prefer to keep their arrangements informal, partly because they fear their children will refuse to release their legal rights, and this might put the children at more risk if they are reclaimed by their parents. Part of this is also due to the sheer complexity of the legal system. Support services need to be available to grandparents to help them negotiate their way through these complex bureaucracies.
Some children in grandparent care need to take on a caring role themselves, in caring for their grandparent. Generally this does not have a negative impact on grandchild outcomes unless the child feels pushed into unwanted precocity.
Grandparents are an important part of our families, and have a very special role. Their involvement enriches the lives of their grandchildren. They can provide invaluable support to their children and make the parenting role easier and less stressful.
Parents can create opportunities for grandparents and grandchildren to spend time together. Grandparents can focus on developing loving relationships with grandchildren. The more extensive the grandparent involvement, the better the benefits for grandchildren and parents.
As with any set of relationships, it is important that all involved commit to communicate effectively. Whilst conflict is not uncommon, it can be worked through to the benefit of all concerned. A commitment to the wellbeing of the children will ensure that families work together and support each other.
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