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Andrew Adesman M.D.
Andrew Adesman M.D.

Five Mindset Shifts Grandfamilies Need to Make

Grandparents raising grandchildren need to make key shifts in their thinking.

When you find yourself raising your grandchild, as about 3.5 million people in North America currently are, you need to make several changes to your basic mindset in order to handle such a new situation. At least, that’s what I hear from the grandparents who bring their youngsters to me for pediatric care. It’s not always easy to make these adjustments, they tell me. They discover they need to revise their roles, their expectations, and perhaps even some of their relationships—they need to embrace real paradigm shifts. But little by little, the whole grandfamily adapts to a new normal, one that is ultimately full of joy. Let’s look at five of the common transitions grandparents usually need to make.

1. Say goodbye to the “spoiling grandparent” role: Now you’re a parent again. Many grandparents lament the loss of the role of the indulgent fun-lover who spoils the grandchildren and then sends them back home to their parents. But the reality is that when you’re raising your grandchild, you need to act as a parent. If you’ve been a typical treat-bestowing grandparent before, now you must default to the stricter parenting role because children need an adult in charge. So if, as a grandparent, you might have allowed a brownie before lunchtime, now your job is to think first about whether a pediatrician (or dentist) would approve, and just say no to the child. Your mantra is healthy food first, dessert second. The same goes for any daily activity that requires limits and structure: homework, bedtime, time spent with electronic devices. Grandparents who are in and out of their grandchildren’s lives don’t have to worry about these choices. But now, acting as a parent, you’re helping shape the habits and values of a lifetime. The stakes are higher!

2. Put your grandchild’s needs ahead of those of the birth parent. If the birth parent—often your adult child—is still in the picture, that person may ask for your help: time, money, a place to live, or other resources. Yet sometimes those requests may conflict with what your grandchild needs or wants. (Let alone the issues of possibly enabling any dysfunctional behavior.) So you make the paradigm shift and put the grandchild first—even if the adult child’s request may be legitimate. For example, your adult daughter asks for a lift to the mall: her ride just fell through. But you have plans— you’re taking your grandson to his good buddy’s birthday party. Who should have priority? Your grandchild. Assuming you are unable to do both, you take him to the party.

3. Shift to more of a listening and learning role with the younger parents you meet. Consider developing a new attitude towards the parents of your grandchildren’s friends, who—despite the likely age difference—are now your peers in terms of parenting. They may be twenty or thirty years younger than you are, but you’re all parenting the same generation. Younger parents have a lot to share: give them a chance! Rather than talking to them about the good old days—before they were born—you listen and learn from their much more current experiences with school issues, media and tech, where to find the best bargains on toys and clothes, and other topics. In addition, when you discover something useful, you share it with them, whether it’s about local school board politics or a citywide event they might like to attend.

4. Accept that some older friends may stop calling. Before your grandchild came to live with you, maybe you socialized widely with friends: eating out, going to movies, sports events, fitness classes, or other adult-centered activities. Now that you are a grandfamily, you may need to shift from an active social life with other adults to family-oriented routines: parent-teacher conferences and other school events, or outdoor play and kids’ sports, to name just a few. Your friends may tell you they’ve already “been there, done that,” and they’re not interested in having children tag along. It happens. It’s not their fault, and it’s not your fault.

Keep in mind that many other grandparents are also raising their grandchildren, and you may develop new friendships with those same-age peers. You may meet them at support groups, through social media sites, parent-teacher meetings, or when you’re out and about. You may also find that some of your former friends are also parenting their grandchildren, and you may reconnect because of these common bonds.

5. Realize that your retirement will likely be different from what you anticipated. I’ve met parenting grandparents in their forties, in their seventies, and everywhere in between. Some older grandparents have lamented to me that they had special plans for their retirement, whether traveling, pursuing hobbies, or just relaxing and doing whatever the heck they wanted to do. When you’re raising a grandchild, you may need to postpone or altogether give up on some of your former retirement plans. And yes, there will be moments when you’ll wish you had more of the free time you’d been anticipating.

But let’s not forget the joys of raising your grandchildren too! Sure, there may be diapers, wake-ups at night, and sometimes tears. Later, there may be stresses with chores, homework, and social lives. But on top of the satisfaction of knowing that the child is safe, healthy, and well fed, there are plenty of small pleasures. Hearing a five-year-old laugh at a classic knock-knock joke she never heard before, observing the excitement of finding money left by the Tooth Fairy (ask your younger friends what’s the going rate), and sharing the thrill of your middle-schooler’s goals on the soccer field—these are just a few examples of the many joys that come with parenting a grandchild.

Grandparents tell me that when you think about, make, and accept these mental paradigm shifts, your life and the lives of your grandchildren can be so much more fulfilling and happy. Sure, there will be hard times. But everyone who’s a parent has those challenging periods. Knowledge is power, and others have walked this path before you. So consider how these mindset shifts could help clear the way for a happy and healthy grandfamily.

About the Author
Andrew Adesman M.D.

Andrew Adesman, M.D., is a professor at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University.

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