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Negotiating the generations

30 March 2020

The reality of being a grandparent can sometimes be different to what we imagined, says Colleen Morris.

How can grandparents build close relationships with their grandchildren?

When a grandparent chooses to enjoy their grandchildren by taking time to play with them, listen to them, be interested in their team sports and generally give them undivided attention, it is likely the relationship will remain close.

Ideally, a grandparent’s role is to be a loving, prayerful, supportive presence to their grandchildren. What this looks like will vary, depending upon the needs of their grandchildren’s parents.

What do new grandparents need to be aware of?

I believe that being a grandparent is a privilege. While by definition you become a grandparent when your adult child produces offspring, this in itself does not ‘entitle’ you to interact as you choose with your grandchild. To do so is likely to be intrusive and disrespectful to the parents. By regarding your role as a privilege you will communicate your caring support and availability.

Where grandparents seek me out as a counsellor, it is likely that they are feeling shut out and hurt by the parent’s lack of communication and lack of interaction with their grandchildren. Frequently grandparents in my office will say, ‘I have a right to see my grandchildren’, believing access to their grandchildren is a non-negotiable. Ideally, a grandparent will have opportunity to see their grandchild regularly, however where the relationship with the parent experiences difficulties, a grandparent may not have as much access to their grandchildren. If this is the case, a grandparent needs to work at healing and building their relationship with the parent. It is not appropriate or respectful to seek time with your grandchild without the approval of their parent/s.

How important is it for parents and grandparents to negotiate ‘boundaries’?

Negotiating boundaries is a priority for parents and grandparents. A healthy, functional relationship between parents and grandparents is one where there is open, respectful and clear conversation. Where there is a failure to discuss boundaries, it is very likely the relationship will suffer.

When we make ‘assumptions’ based upon our own experiences and needs rather than basing our behaviour upon a grounded conversation, resentment can grow, creating a distance between parents and grandparents.

What sort of boundaries may need to be discussed?

What we ‘imagine’ it will be like to be a grandparent verses the reality is likely to be very different. Generationally, parenting in 2019 looks very different to parenting in the 1990s. The role that our own grandparents had in our life as a child will not follow the same template when it is our turn to be a grandparent. Ultimately it is not the grandparent’s job to parent their grandchildren.

Nor is it the grandparent’s role to tell the parent how to do their job (even if you don’t agree). A wise grandparent will let the parent know they are loved, supported and respected as the parents of their grandchildren. To this end, a grandparent might initiate the conversation about boundaries by asking the parents how they see the role of a grandparent. Would they like you to support them by doing something on a regular basis with your grandchildren, such as taking them to a play group? As your grandchildren grow, would it be helpful if you picked them up from school and took care of them until their parents came home from work? You could offer to take care of your grandchildren so their parents could spend some quality time together.

How can grandparents share their values and faith with their grandchildren?

Where parents and grandparents agree, faith can be communicated through small rituals such as saying a prayer of thanks before a meal, a prayer before bedtime or reading a Bible story, even taking them along to the local Sunday school or similar faith group. Where this is not agreed upon, grandparents can communicate their values and faith by sharing their stories as part of the conversation that is had while together.

How important is grandparents’ ability to share family history?

It has always been important in indigenous families to provide children with a broader sense of cultural identity and grandparents have always taken this role as custodians of their family and tribal history.

We can learn much from this ancient approach of sharing our history with the next generation.

The grandfather of my children would regularly tell his grandchildren stories about “Old Bill”, so that over time the children would say to him, “Tell us a story about Bill”. Bill was, of course, a synonym for himself.

When grandparents become primary caregivers, what kind of self-care strategies could they employ?

This is a particularly challenging task at a stage of life where a grandparent might have expected to enjoy more leisure time or at least have more choice as to how they use their time. It can be a very isolating, lonely and exhausting responsibility, so seek out a community group designed for grandparents who are the primary caregivers. This will provide an opportunity to receive mutual support and encouragement.

How can grandparents who have limited access to their grandchildren establish a relationship?

If a parent permits, you might be able to link up with them on social media platforms such as Facebook or Instagram. A card in the mail saying that you love them will never go out of fashion. Sometimes it is not possible to have the relationship you want with your grandchild, however you can always pray for them. In time, as your grandchild gets older, you may well have that opportunity to introduce yourself.

Colleen Morris is a family therapist and counsellor at Watersedge Counselling in Geelong, Vic.


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