Along with the other roles that grandparents play, they can help grandchildren deal with the stressful world they live in. To begin with, grandparents can be great at detecting when their grandchildren are under pressure. Because they usually don't see them every day, they may notice small changes in behavior or demeanor that parents may miss, because they do see them daily. Also, some grandparents have fewer of the distractions that can keep parents from picking up on their children's stress.
Signals of Stress
Kids' reactions to stressful events are highly individualized. Still, there are certain signs to look for. In toddlers and preschoolers, crying, clinging, separation anxiety and regressive behavior can signal stress. Older, school-age children may act out and be aggressive, or they may become silent and withdrawn. They may complain of vague illnesses, especially stomachaches and headaches. Their eating and sleeping habits may change. They may also resist going to school or want to drop out of usual school-related activities.
Life changes can be powerful stressors, but it's tricky to predict how a child will handle such changes. Sometimes kids will sail through a major change but fall apart when facing a minor change. Much depends upon the individual child and his or her personality and usual coping strategies.
Many times stress is a result of changes in a family unit.
See specific advice for handling these challenging situations with grandchildren:
The death or illness of a pet can be hard for children to handle, too. Other life changes that can cause stress include moving and getting a new sibling.
Remember that even positive events can be stressors, as they disturb equilibrium, or what scientists call homeostasis.
Outside Sources of Stress
Since grandparents tend to be family-oriented, we may immediately suspect family issues when a child shows signs of stress. The truth is that school pressures and relationships with peers are just as likely to be sources of stress. After all, growing up is a matter of moving from the somewhat controlled environment of the family to larger, more complex settings. That process itself is stressful. In addition to the built-in stress, children often struggle with fitting in socially and making friends. Add to those concerns other possible issues, such as peer pressure, bullying and the demands of school work, and you have a combination that can result in toxic amounts of worry.
Children are often reluctant to talk to parents about problems with school or peers, because they fear the parents will step in and do something that will further damage their standing. For that reason, they may be more willing to open up to grandparents.
Grandparents who do receive confidences can be placed in a tricky spot, as they must decide whether to share what they learn with parents.
Generally, they should avoid taking a pledge of secrecy. If a grandchild asks, a good response is to say something like this: "I don't usually tell your parents the things you say to me, but if you tell me something that I feel they need to know, I will tell them."
Noticing stressed-out grandchildren is one thing. Knowing what to do about it is something else. But many of the things grandparents do instinctively are good for stress. The grandparent who utilizes natural tendencies and then learns some other techniques can be very helpful to grandchildren -- the anti-stress, so to speak.
Calming the Environment
Most grandparents inhabit a calmer world than younger generations. There's less chaos in our lives, for the most part, and that makes a difference in our homes. Grandchildren often enjoy repeating rituals and traditions at their grandparents' home.
They often play with toys and read books that they should have outgrown, just because those activities are comforting to them.
Grandparents can make their homes even more low-stress through a few simple measures. Television sets should be turned off unless you want to watch a special program with the grandchildren. In many families, the television is almost always on, and the noise pollution can cause stress. If you have older grandchildren, it may be a challenge to dislodge them from their electronic devices, but it's worth a try. And be sure that you're not compulsively checking your own screens.
Much like noise pollution, living in an untidy environment can cause stress. Generally a grandparent's house has fewer people living in it, so it is easier to keep neat and uncluttered, and that can be soothing to grandchildren.
Some children, especially the picky eaters, get very tense if they think they are going to have to eat unfamiliar foods. When grandchildren come to visit, they should know that there will be foods available that are acceptable to them, although it is certainly okay to introduce them to new foods as well.
Active play is a great stress-reliever, but some children get anxious about sports because they feel their performance is being judged. Opt for free play, go to the playground, or choose a classic outdoor game that is non-competitive. Just being out of doors is relaxing for most children. Going for a walk is another good option. For some reason walking together seems to encourage confidences. That can be a good way to get the grandchildren to open up about anything that is bothering them.
Some children find stress relief in activities such as creating art or playing music. Others feel that their work or performance is being judged, and they just feel more tense. This may be especially true for grandparents who are hosting more than one grandchild. Cousin rivalry is a very real thing, and if an activity seems to spur unhealthy competition between siblings or cousins, it may be best to avoid it for a while.
Yoga can be great for grandparents, and, for slightly different reasons, yoga can be beneficial for children, too, Concentrating on breathing and on achieving and holding a pose has a way of driving other concerns right out of the brain. Try these child-friendly yoga poses or, for a more complete experience, invest in a yoga DVD that is suitable for children.
Unconditional Love and Acceptance
Grandchildren can also take great comfort in the unconditional love of grandparents. Of course parents love their children, but grandparents' love is a little different because it's not so bound up with expectations. We can be more generous with our love because we aren't the responsible parties. Also, we have lived longer and seen that children can make many missteps and still achieve happiness and success, so we may be less critical.
We should not, however, constantly praise our grandchildren. Overpraising just makes them distrust our judgment, because they know very well that what they did wasn't all that great. We also shouldn't let them get by with unacceptable behavior. It's perfectly okay to hold the grandchildren to your rules when they visit. Our unchanging standards actually can be comforting to grandchildren, as long as they are enforced calmly and lovingly.
Deal With More Serious Stressors
These strategies should work for garden-variety stress, the type that springs from the ordinary demands of kid life. When children are subject to more serious stresses, they may need professional help. At the very least, they will need more focused attention from family members.