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Three Secrets for Being the Best Grandparent

Mastering these tips will affect your grandchild’s mental health and identity.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

by Leslie Schweitzer-Miller, M.D

As a new grandparent, a lot of things can feel out of your control. But how you adapt to your new role and adjust to the new chain of command is within your control and will determine how this potentially wonderful chapter in your life unfolds.

Of course, you’ll have no choice but to accept that, yes, you’re that old. On the other hand, if you play your cards right, the relationship with your grandchild will more than compensate. And, Grandma and Grandpa, this isn’t only about you. Mastering the art of grandparenting matters because it will affect your grandchild’s psychological health, identity, and the kind of person they become.

1. Resolve past conflicts.

One of the keys to your lifelong success as a grandparent is addressing any issues you’ve had with the parents of your grandchild or they’ve had with you. Clearing away the remnants of bad feelings will facilitate your opportunity to establish a healthy relationship with your grandchild.

Take stock of any grievances, prejudices, or jealousies. It’s never too soon or too late to try to resolve past conflicts. From major fault lines to insignificant cracks, your goal should be putting things in perspective and making peace, because that’s fundamental to being part of your grandchild’s life and, as they grow older, modeling healthy relationships for them.

“My daughter-in-law has always had a lot of rules for me,” Emily said, “and I resented her attitude. Then the little guy came along. Once I held him in my arms, I knew I had to make a choice. These days I smile whether I agree or not because I don’t want her to have any excuse to keep me away from my grandson. He was about three the day we were walking up the stairs from the basement when he suddenly reached for my hand. ‘I’m not holding your hand because I need to,’ he announced proudly. ‘I’m holding your hand because I love you.’ Moments like that make all my tongue biting worth it.”

2. Respect your children’s rules.

The arrival of a child often causes tectonic shifts in what was familiar terrain. It can be difficult to accept that you suddenly have to play by your children’s rules. Whether it’s your daughter, son, step-daughter, step-son, daughter-in-law or son-in-law, your new position dictates that you follow their lead. Even when your grandchild is at your house, there’s no benefit in pretending otherwise. You’re not the final authority anymore. Your kids and their spouses—your grandchild’s parents—will have their particular opinions, viewpoints, systems, and styles. Let them have the last word on the boundaries set for their child.

Twenty-first-century parenting is different than even a generation ago. Information comes from Google, social media, and online support groups. Your advice may be thought of as old-fashioned, and maybe it is. A wise grandparent makes a conscious effort to respect new, unfamiliar ideas and treads lightly. Your reassurance is likely to be appreciated. Let the new parents know you remember and understand how scary it is, how tired they are, and that every good, concerned new parent feels just the way they do. If you can help them relax a little by being a calm presence, the baby will be calmer. And right from the start, your grandchild is the beneficiary of your wisdom.

3. Don’t let your ego get in the way.

Your ego—the part of your mind responsible for your sense of self-esteem—may feel slighted or diminished if your words don’t carry the weight they once did. The new reality may mean adjusting your expectations. When and if you offer advice, don’t lobby. Better yet, wait to be asked.

Research shows that when a grandparent holds a grandchild for the first time they are flooded with oxytocin, the “love hormone,” just as a new mother is when nursing. This hints that the grandchild/grandparent bond is important. It’s also important to recognize that you are now the Chief Operating Officer, not the Chief Executive. You have to accept it, make the best of it, and keep your eye on the prize. Your grandchildren need you in their lives.

A study conducted by Oxford University and the Institute of Education found that children are generally happier, and the effects of adverse life events like parental separation and illness are buffered, if grandparents are involved in their upbringing. In addition, a grandparent provides a link to the past and helps in the formation of a grandchild’s identity and sense of self.

My patient, Maggie, was the first daughter of two busy corporate attorneys. Her four older brothers teased and belittled her to the point that she gave up trying to learn anything. “Grandma Sarah saved me,” she said, the week before being awarded her Ph.D. “She’d sit on the floor with me for hours and play games I’d never tried to learn. I thought I was too stupid. She was patient and encouraging, and I didn’t feel anxious learning something new. I started to believe in myself because she believed I could do anything if I tried hard enough.”

Learning to be a grandparent and adapting to that new role isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth the effort.

Leslie Schweitzer Miller, M.D. is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst affiliated with The American Psychoanalytic Association. She is in private practice in New York City and recently published a novel titled Discovery.

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