Becoming a grandparent

Families change. Children grow up, move away, fall in love and have children of their own. Your tiny baby, cute toddler and frustrating teenager is a parent now – and you’re a grandparent. How did that happen?

When asked for the best thing about having grandchildren, grandparents talk about the joys of loving and being loved, watching the children grow, and seeing themselves live on through their grandchildren.

One of the great things about becoming a grandparent is loving and caring for your grandchild without being responsible for him in the same way his parents are.

Your role

You can decide on your role as grandparent. You might want to be really hands on, or take things more slowly to start with.

Many grandparents find that the arrival of a grandchild gives them a new sense of purpose – but they also have to work out where the boundaries are with the new parents. Talking openly about roles and expectations can make this easier. Grandparents often play an important role in supporting their grandchild's parents. This can range from practical things – for example, cooking meals – to listening to worries.

You might want to play a role in looking after your grandchild – and you might not, which is just fine too. Being clear about what you can and can’t do is the key.

If your grandchild’s parents can’t care for him, you might become a grandparent carer. This situation has its challenges, but many bonuses too.

Your feelings

Many grandparents are amazed and delighted at the joy, fun and love that becoming ‘nan’ or ‘pop’ can bring to their lives. The special bonds that can develop between you and your grandchild can lead to a really beautiful and rewarding relationship.

When the little ones first talk and they run up to you and throw their arms around you and go ‘Grandma!’, it just melts your heart. And their love for you is unconditional as is yours for them. It’s very special. There’s a little piece of me in each of those grandchildren!
– Grandmother and research participant

But it’s not always rosy. One survey of over 1000 Australian grandmothers found that about 25% of the grandmothers had problems with their grandchild’s parents. Sometimes the problems led to the grandmothers not being able to see their grandchildren. Other grandmothers had been through a time when they weren’t getting along with their grandchild’s parents. But they managed to get through it.

Keeping family communication open and respectful will help you discuss problems with your grandchild’s parents, especially if you’re concerned about your grandchild.

I have a lovely daughter-in-law. I made a decision not to interfere in her mothering and the choices that she made. My mother and my mother-in-law were very good in that way, and I learned from them. Give advice if you’re asked for it, but don’t go on about it.
– Catherine, grandmother of granddaughters ages three and six years.

Your relationships

New grandchildren often make family relationships stronger and closer.

And the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren can have a very positive influence on children’s development. Research from several international studies shows that a child who has a warm relationship with a grandparent can bounce back better during life’s ups and downs. This is true for all families but especially for children in high-risk families – for example, children with disabilities and children in families after a separation.

Relationships can change too, and you might find that you’re grandparenting during a separation or divorce. If you can support your grandchild and her parents in times like these, it can help everyone adjust to the changes.

Looking after yourself

Most grandparents will still be healthy and active when their grandchildren are young, but some will have health problems. And as well as being a grandparent, you might have other commitments – for example, work, caring for an elderly parent or just enjoying time to yourself.

Looking after yourself with regular exercise, rest and a healthy diet will help you keep up with grandkids – and just enjoy your life.

The only downside to being a grandma is my body! I get tired before my little grandson does and I’m not always able to keep up with him.
– Grandmother and research participant

Tips for being a grandparent

Here are some ideas to help you in your role as a grandparent:

  • Before your grandchild is born, talk with the parents-to-be about your feelings. Listen to their ideas about how you could help and share your ideas too. Show you’re willing and share your expectations about what you think you can do.
  • No-one benefits if you run yourself into the ground. So be positive about contributing, but upfront with your children about your health, energy levels and other commitments.
  • Once your grandchild arrives, things might change. The new parents might need more help or time alone with their baby to find their feet as parents.
  • If you have several grandchildren, treating them all as individuals helps each one feel special to you.
  • Playing and having fun with your grandchild can be good for his development. One small study showed links between seven-month-old children’s brain development and their opportunities to play with and see their grandparents regularly.
  • As you get older, or if you have health problems, you might need to adapt your time with the grandchildren to quieter activities. Reading and playing board games could be good options.
  • Let your household standards slip a bit and put away the precious ornaments. This can help you relax more and enjoy your time with your grandchild. You know from being a parent how short these years will be.
  • Ideas and research have probably changed since your children were young. You might like to read some current thinking on looking after yourself, baby development, sleep, behaviour, disciplinesafety and nutrition and fitness.