Tips about Grandparents

When it is going well, grandparents can provide a child with a sense of family history, a different perspective on who you are as their parent and an additional attachment relationship. There are so many ways to stay connected.

  • Make vists as welcoming as possible – For a relationship to grow, they need time together. Time together means visits and phone calls. Ideally, children will see their grandparents often and throughout the year.
  • Travel together – When we can, we’ve made it a point to meet extended family away from home. Sharing a house at the beach or having adjoining hotel rooms can give people time together with no one having the pressure to host.
  • Skype, text, email, facebook – This may take some technological effort on your part from both ends, but there are an increasing number of ways for people to stay connected. It makes my heart happy that my oldest daughter and my dad just became friends on facebook.
  • The mail – When our girls were younger, my parents sent postcards from everywhere they went. A little later, my oldest and my parents sent a craft project back and forth, each working a little at a time.
  • Keep pictures out – Having family photos and scrap books is a small but easy way to stay connected.

When it is not going well, there are several guidelines to keep in mind.

  • They would risk themselves – A mom once told me this is how she keeps her mother-in-law issues in perspective, she reminds herself that in the whole world grandparents are likely the only other ones that would risk their lives for your child.
  • Weigh how often they visit – If grandparents only visit two weekends a year, deciding boundaries and working out issues is a very different thing than if they are your 20 hours a week childcare. A child missing naps or eating extra cookies is likely something you can let go a few days a year but not several days a week.
  • Decide if it’s health and safety – A grandparent that spanks, and you are headset against, can quickly become an issue even if they are just together a handful of times. Health and safety issues should be discussed.

Answers to Typical Two-Year-Old Struggles

Recently I got an email from a mom with several questions asking how to respond to several of her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s behaviors. The start to each of the answers was, “this is common at two…”  I am going to write a paragraph about what it is to be two-and-a-half years old, and then answer the specifics in turn.

At two-and-a-half years old, most children move through a stage of saying “no” all day long and are driven to do the opposite of the things you request. This struggle stems from their developing sense of self. They are learning they can voice an opinion and are testing the power that opinion has. As challenging as it can be, you want your children to move through this. They are also starting to realize independence and how to speak up for themselves. At two-and-a-half years old, they are starting to experience bigger and more complex emotions such as fear and jealousy. They are starting to have broader social interactions such as sharing space in a busy preschool classroom. All this while lacking a real ability to deal effectively. Their thinking is big, but their language, size and skills are limited.

1. When I am speaking on the phone, texting or emailing, she will act like she is hurt, cry and make other loud noises.

Answers: First, if you can, save the texting and emailing for when she is asleep or otherwise occupied. If there is a 30 minute stretch of a tv show, that’s the time to text away. I get things can’t always wait, but when they can it’s a nice practice. Second, plan for distractions. If you know you are going to be on a 20 minute call, run some water in the sink and let her “wash dishes” or break out the play-doh set that she can mush for a while. Third, teach her how to politely interrupt like standing in front of you waiting or touching your hand quietly. I wrote notes on how to teach that in this blog post:

2. At times she will say she wants something like a stuffed animal. When I give it to her she says, “I don’t want it,” and backs away from me and it. Then I will move on to do something else, and she will jump up and down saying, “no, I want it! I want it!” When I try to give it to her again, she backs away. Now I am mad. How do I break this cycle?

Answer: Recognize she is still learning the power of words and how these social dynamics work. The answer is to see it coming as best as you can. When she backs away the first time say, “I can see you changed your mind, and you don’t want it now. I am going to leave it out for you right here in case you change your mind again,” and then just leave it. If she starts to jump around say, “it is okay to change your mind. You are welcome to have it,” just avoid picking it up again. The key is to stay completely calm and disengage yourself while allowing her to make decisions.

3. One day a week, my parents watch her. They mentioned that all goes well during the day, but when I pick her up at 5:00 p.m. she acts totally different. She gets clingy to me, whines, forgets all their rules and runs amok.

Answer: This is totally normal from grandparents, babysitters or preschool teachers. Children tend to be better behaved for others. The silver lining is just that, they are better behaved for others, so their time away is a bit smoother. First, be ready for it. Let your parents know it’s normal and have a plan to spend the first 10 minutes you are there giving her undivided attention. Yes, greet your parents, but let her talk with you about her day and show you anything important, maybe play a quick round or two of hide’n’seek. Many children at this pick-up transition long for a bit of realtime. If it’s given, they can relax a bit, so you can then more peacefully speak with your parents. Second, distract her from it by giving her a job or challenge. As you walk through the door, ask her to be the door locker and then your shoe untie-er or ask if she can quick find grandpa and kiss his cheeck five times. Third, make a quick exit. Ask the grandparents to put everything by the door, call them from the car to have any necessary small talk and whisk her away as you open the door.

4. When we are in the car I usually play children’s music. She likes to sing along. Sometimes I like to sing too, but when I do she says, “no mommy, don’t sing.” My reply is along the lines of, “that’s not nice to say, Mommy wants to sing too. We can both sing together.” I’ve also tried taking turns singing, but then we get stuck on a song two or four times.

Answer: Several options here. First, say, “oh, you want to sing alone? Okay,” and then really enjoy her singing. Second, offer to take turns, but just play each song twice, so you don’t lose your mind. Third, offer empathy and then sing along. This sounds like “oh, I hear you want to sing alone, but right now I’d like to sing too. It’s fun to sing with you,” and then sing. In each case, you are letting her know you’ve heard her and then moving forward. Overtime, and while there may be some upsets, you are teaching her to be flexible to others as well which is a good skill in life.

Taking Children to a Funeral

Dear Dr. Rene,

We are comtemplating taking our five and six year olds to their grandfather’s funeral. My instinct says not to, and I want to know what is the current thinking on this.

Thank you!

For sure, this is a difficult and personal decision and should feel comfortable once made.  If your instinct is saying no, for whatever reason, that may be the way to go. You know your own children, their emotional well-being and their relationship with their grandfather, so you ultimately are the best judge. That said, from a psychological standpoint it can be fine to have children attend funerals. Death is a part of life and can be presented as such with a great deal of love and support. I think a lot of how children manage through difficult situations rests in how we present them. If you decide to take them with you, talk about the place and the activity that will happen. Talk about who will be there and that people may be very emotional or quiet. Find out, if you can if it will be an open or closed casket, an indoor or graveside service and talk about those details as well. Prepare them as best you can for the experience and be open to answering all of their questions before, during and after. I would also consider the child’s response. If there is great hesitation or upset over going, it may be they are not yet able to handle the event. I wouldn’t push a child into attending any related activity. If they do not attend the funeral, it may be nice to offer some other way for them to have closure such as making a photo album or taking a nature walk to talk about memories of that person. This also holds true in the other direction. If a child really wants to attend, I would err on the side of taking them, especially if this is an important relationship to the child. Missing the event can’t be undone.

My children have been to several funerals with us for friends and relatives over the years. While they have willingly attended and asked a great many questions after, they have avoided going near the casket at each, and that is fine. We talk openly about the process, our feeling and fond memories we have of that person before and after.

Grandparent Issues

There are two general guidelines for deciding to address a grandparenting concern. The first is to decide if it is a health and safety issue. Let’s say a grandparent spanks, and you are strongly against spanking. This would be considered a health and safety issue, so even if they only visit a few days a year, address it. Speak with them about it and come to some conclusions. If it is not a health and safety issue, it’s better to let it go and allow them to build an individual relationship. When a grandparent is corrected often, they may pull back from the relationship which likely isn’t worth fixing the issue if not for health and safety.

The second is to consider how often they visit or how often the behavior occurs. Let’s say the grandparent gives the child a piece of candy each day. If they only vist a few days a year, this is likely not an issue. If they are your five-day-a-week childcare, this is likely an issue.

You might also weigh intent. Even when it is annoying to you, a grandparent may be coming from a place of love and connection. When you do address an issue, avoid blaming the grandparent. Blame yourself and your own concerns for behaviors, or blame the child and their reactions. Ask for help with the situation rather than blame. If you do address an issue, do this out of earshot of the child.

A mom in our program recently shared how she puts grandparent issues in perspective.  When grandparents visit, she posts a strange quotation on the fridge to remind herself, “gnaw off their arm.” She says this reminds her whenever an issue arises that grandparents are likely the only other people in the world that would gnaw off their own arm to save her child’s life. It helps her to let the frustrating but managable things go.

Extended Stay with Grandparents

Dear Dr. Rene,
My five and six year old children are going to be staying with their grandparents for two months while we move our household and set up our new house in Germany. How do we keep this separation a positive experience and let them know they haven’t been abadoned?
Sincerely, Sybil
Mother of Two

Dear Sybil,
There are many answers here. First, be ready for them to have some separation issues or related upsets throughout the time. Two months is a stretch, and, at this little age, the response is unpredictable. Talk to the grandparents in advance about ways they might help and how to manage.

Anytime there is upset, start with giving empathy. Accept and validate their emotion. Label and talk about why they are feeling that way. Help them to understand and express their feelings. Teach them ways to calm and cope.

During the separation, find ways to connect. Plan to Skype regularly, send a daily postcard, email pictures of the move and call daily. Even if these things are a bit difficult, it is likely good to be in touch.

Have the grandparents keep as regular a schedule as they can. Keep mealtime and bedtime routines intact and sleep on schedule. If the children went to preschool or babysitters, have them go as possible.

Make a fun schedule for the four of them. Encourage the grandparents to take the children to museums, movies or the library for storytimes. Be helpful by researching this for them in advance.
Dr. Rene

>Grandparent in Hospital

>Dear Dr. Hackney,

My four year old has a very close relationship with my parents. Recently, my mother has been hospitalized and has a poor prognosis. What do we tell our son about my mother’s situation and about my father being sad and preoccupied during our visits? Is it okay for him to visit grandma in the hospital?

Mother of one, age four years

Dear Hillary,

I am sorry to hear of your mother’s prognosis. The idea is to be as honest as you can with your son without overwhelming him. You might let him know that “Grandma is very sick. She is going into the hospital, and the doctors are trying to make her well.” You might follow this by giving him ample time to ask questions. Try to answer any questions he has without giving too much information. If you avoid answering questions, children often come up with their own answers which can be worse than the truth. If you give too much information, it can add to their worries.

If it is okay with your parents and the hospital, it is fine to take your son to visit. You would do well to fully explain beforehand what he can expect during the visit. Let him know about IVs and other machinery in grandma’s room. Let him know that the nurses check on grandma every once in a while and about the other adults if she shares a room.

It is also fine to let your son know that “Grandpa is sad a lot these days. He really misses grandma not being at home and wants her to get well.” It might be helpful for your child to be able to take some action to help others in this situation. You might ask him if he would like to draw pictures for grandma and grandpa or take flowers to the hospital.

Rene Hackney, PhD.
Parenting Playgroups, Inc.

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