Here are seven things you can do to help your children to build and maintain relationships with their grandparents, whether they live just around the corner or across the country.
Families with living grandparents are especially blessed. Each grandparent fills a unique role in a child's development, providing both love and a window into family history. Spend time together as an extended family, but balance it with 1-on-1 time between each grandchild and grandparent. Try these suggestions to help build and maintain these special relationships.
Nurture the Relationship
Like all relationships worth having, those between children and their grandparents take time and attention. Do your part by providing plenty of opportunities for interaction, both in person and otherwise. Even if you are divorced, the value your child can obtain from a grandparent is worth putting aside any disputes you may have with former in-laws.
Set Limits on Grandparents
Many grandparents will follow your parenting example and enforce your rules with the children. To the few who try to impose their own child-rearing methods, explain that this undermines your authority and confuses the children. Ask for their cooperation, stressing how much you value their relationships with your child.
Don't Let Distance Prevent a Relationship
Grandparents who live far away require more creativity to maintain strong contact. Besides visits, use telephone calls, email, regular mail, and Internet video communication to keep ties strong. The more consistent and frequent the distant contact, the easier it will be to make the most of in-person visits.
Encourage Activities that Create Memories
Your children will outlive your parents, so it's important to build memories that can sustain your children in the future. Encourage activities that will result in concrete reminders of time spent together. And, perhaps, create a scrapbook for pictures of those activities.
Understand Grandparents' Limitations
Help your children to understand that Grandma may tire more easily than they do, and that Grandpa may need assistance with walking or other basic skills. Don't burden grandparents with child care beyond their physical or emotional limits.
Avoid Feeling Jealous About Their Relationship
A child who develops an especially close relationship to a grandparent may seem, at times, to prefer that grandparent to her actual parents. Be assured that your child still loves you as much as ever, just as your love for one child is undiminished by the birth of another.
Moreover, don't allow your disputes with parents or in-laws to cloud your children's relationships with their grandparents. Children size people up with amazing accuracy, and besides, grandparents may well treat a grandchild better than they treat you.
Dealing With Sickness and Death
Our time with elderly relatives is limited and often complicated by physical and/or mental declines. Explain illnesses, including dementia, emphasizing the need for continued contact, love, and respect. Understand that children may mourn a death differently than adults. A child may suddenly develop behavior problems or become reclusive. Give children a chance to discuss sad feelings, and seek professional help in extreme situations.
If your family's grandparents have died, look for other seniors to “grandparent” your child. Older relatives, especially those without grandchildren of their own, may welcome the chance to develop a stronger relationship with your child. Consider programs offered by local retirement homes or libraries that match children with senior volunteers.
Sharon Nolfi is a licensed marriage and family therapist and school psychologist, as well as a mom.