Grandparents: working out your role

There are lots of things to think about when you’re working out your role as a grandparent.

Although you might want to spend time with your grandchildren and help their parents, there might be other demands on your time, like work. Or you might be retired, planning to travel and looking forward to time to yourself.

Your health, commitments and partner are all important considerations too. And there are practical and emotional considerations, like how close you live to your grandchildren, and how well you get on with your grandchildren’s parents.

Balancing your needs with those of your extended family can be a challenge, especially if you have grandchildren in more than one family. But no-one benefits if you try to do too much.

It’s OK for you to decide on what and how much you want to do as a grandparent – and this might change as other things change. If you can be open and clear with your grandchildren’s parents about your choices, it will help everybody understand where the boundaries are.

Sometimes your grandchildren’s parents will need time and space to work out their own roles as parents or to bond with their new baby. Even if you really want to be involved, at these times you might need to back off a little bit.

Setting boundaries as a grandparent

It can be a good idea to set some boundaries around your role as a grandparent. Here are some ideas:

  • Think about what you want to do and what you can do. For example, you might be keen to spend time with your grandchildren while their parents are around, but you’re not ready to look after them on your own just yet. Or you might not want to look after them at all – and that’s OK.
  • If you’re working and you want to help with child care for your grandchildren, talk with your employer about flexible work arrangements – for example, rostered days off, personal leave or working from home.
  • If you have more than one grandchild, think about how you can spend time with each of your grandchildren while still having some time for yourself.

Talking with your grandchildren’s parents about roles and boundaries

If you need to talk with your grandchildren’s parents about roles and boundaries, the conversation might go best at a time when you’re all calm and relaxed. You don’t have to make a special time to talk, though – you can bring up the issue at a time that’s good for everyone.

Here are some ideas for negotiating roles and boundaries:

  • Ask parents what sort of help they’d like from you.
  • If you want to be more involved, say so – but be sensitive to the needs of the new parents. For example, ‘I’d love to look after Frankie while you go out for a coffee, but I understand that you might not be ready to leave her just yet’.
  • Speak up if you feel that the new parents want more than you can manage. For example, ‘I can look after Riley on Tuesday afternoons, but I have things to do on other days of the week’.
  • Suggest a trial period if you’re concerned about taking on too much. For example, ‘Let’s try it for a month and see how it goes’.

Your changing role as a grandparent

Your role is likely to change as your grandchildren get older. This is partly because your commitments might change, and also because your grandchildren’s needs and interests will change too.

This means that even if you can’t or don’t want to help so much when your grandchildren are little, you might be able to look forward to doing more as they get older.

For example, babies and toddlers love one-on-one time, playing and learning. School-age children are keen to share interests and activities. So if you’re a grandparent who wants to pass on a love of reading, teach your grandchildren about gardening or take your grandchildren on special outings, this might be a perfect fit.

Teenagers and adult grandchildren value your support and interest as they become more independent. You might be able to give them different points of view as they work out who they are and what they want to be.

Your role might also change if your grandchildren’s family changes – for example, when they welcome a new baby or a parent starts a new job. This can lead to the family needing more or less support from you, depending on the situation.

I want to be that special person that when things aren’t maybe going quite as well with Mum and Dad or something, they’ve got someone else that they know who’s there for them as well.
– Isabel, grandmother of four grandchildren aged 7 months to 11 years

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