When You Really Have to Discipline a Grandchild

Avoid Most Problems, Deal Consistently With the Rest

Grandparent Discipline
Even grandparents need to say no occasionally. Photo © Sam Edwards | OJO Images | Getty

It's inevitable. It will happen even to the grandparent who wants nothing more than to spoil a grandchild, the grandparent who is most determined to be the "fun" grandparent. A grandchild will misbehave with no parent in sight to act as disciplinarian. What's a grandparent to do?

Know the Parents' Methods

It's important to understand the parenting style of the grandchild's family and what disciplinary methods the parents use.

In most cases, these will work best, because the child knows the drill. In addition, the parents are unlikely to have a problem with how you handle a situation if you are using their methods. Be sure that you are comfortable with the method, however. I don't recommend that grandparents use spanking, even if the parents do. But even when you're prepared with a plan for handling misbehavior, it's better to avert problems.

Avoid Problems if Possible

If you know which situations are ticklish, you can find a way to avoid many of them. These strategies may help:

  • Let the child know what to expect. Many difficulties occur because the child was not informed about plans ahead of time. That's not an issue with some children, but it's a huge issue with others.
  • Give warnings when an activity is about to be over.  Many children have difficulty with transitions, and a little advance warning does wonders. Setting a timer can be helpful. Some children get anxious if they aren't allowed to finish what they are working on. If you make a big show of carefully setting the project aside to be finished later, such children may be able to move on to another activity more comfortably.
  • Allow extra time to get ready and to get to places. I was once told to add 30 minutes of getting-ready time for each child under 5, and I think that's a good rule. Sometimes it takes 30 minutes just for a child to go to the toilet.
  • Don't let them get hungry. Since it takes so long to get ready to go somewhere, by the time you're ready, everyone's hungry! Take high-protein snacks such as nuts and string cheese. These are also good for those times when a grandchild is hungry, but the grandparents haven't quite managed to get a meal on the table.
  • Give them some control. No one is suggesting that we let children take charge, but offering options is one way of reducing anxiety. If you have a grandchild who is a picky eater, offering a few food choices may make mealtimes more pleasant. Otherwise some children worry about being expected to eat something they don't like.  

When It Happens

All the prevention in the world can't keep it from happening occasionally. A grandchild will misbehave or act out, and the grandparent has to decide: Address the problem, or ignore it?

Generally, children like rules. They like to know that if they are out of control, someone else is in control. They may not be able to articulate this feeling, but it is there. Children need consistency in expectations and consequences.

Appropriate consequences will vary according to the age of the grandchild but may include:

  • Discussion: When we were kids, we often received a good "talking-to." Sometimes we would have preferred something more painful but swifter. Talk should be a part of all discipline measures. Never discipline a child without explaining why.
  • Time Out: Most modern parents opt for this strategy. A child should be confined to a room or to a chair or a stair step. The child has to stay in time out for a specified time. One minute per year of age is usually the guideline, but here's the catch: The time doesn't start until the child is quiet and cooperative.
  • Loss of Privileges: This technique is often used for older children, but can work for younger ones as well. Children can be told that they won't be allowed to watch television or play with a favorite electronic device. Grandparents should specify how long the loss of privileges will last. It shouldn't be too long, because to a child, an afternoon can seem like forever.


Occasionally a grandchild will have a full-fledged meltdown. It may look like what we used to call a temper tantrum, with kicking and screaming, or it may take the form of uncontrollable sobbing. The important thing to know about meltdowns is that the child has lost control of his or her emotions. It does no good to demand that the child stop, because he or she is temporarily unable to do so.

The most important thing that a grandparent can do in confronting a meltdown is to remain calm.

Having two persons out of control is worse than having one. Generally speaking, two methods are effective in dealing with meltdowns. One is to leave the child alone and let him or her work out the solution. The other is to talk to the child quietly. Acknowledge what he or she must be feeling. Don't ask the child to articulate his or her feelings, as this request just adds more stress. You will learn which of these two methods works best for your grandchild.

Once the storm has abated a bit, you can try a bit of humor, such as a joke or a funny face or a tickle. Introducing humor into the situation allows the child to loosen up without losing face. Offering a snack, soothing drink or new activity is a good transition, too.

Special Needs Children

If you have a special needs grandchild, the question of discipline is likely to be more complicated. Be sure to learn as much as you can about your grandchild's situation. Also, it's more important than ever to know how parents manage behavior.

If you have a grandchild on the autism spectrum, you probably know that he or she may be prone to meltdowns. In addition, children on the spectrum may have difficulty verbalizing their feelings and may react negatively to bodily contact, both of which make managing behavior difficult. When you know that you will have the sole care of an autistic grandchild, get with the parents and have a plan for any problems that might occur. Similar precautions should be taken for grandchildren with other conditions that complicate discipline.

A Few Caveats

A grandparent's most important job is to keep the grandchild safe. Having rules and enforcing them can help in this most important endeavor.

A grandparent can get too comfortable in disciplining the grandkids and continue doing it even when the parents are around. That's not a good idea. Look to the parents first. It is okay, however, to have slightly different rules and standards at a grandparent's house than those that are enforced at the child's own home.

For one thing, floor coverings, furniture and bedding at a grandparent's house may not have been chosen with children in mind. It's okay to make rules that protect such items from being ruined. That is one of the five decisions about grandkids that grandparents can make.

Grandparents raising grandchildren and grandparents who provide regular child care will have to be less indulgent and more consistent in disciplining grandchildren. To apply the laxer rules of occasional grandparenting to a role that is more like parenting is to invite chaos.