The Ups and Down of Being a Young Grandparent

Challenges Are Numerous, But Rewards Are, Too

young grandmother at the beach with a granddaughter
Hero Images / Getty Images

Some grandparents are more running shoes than rocking chairs, more social media than social security. Since the average age of becoming a grandparent is 47 or 48, obviously many individuals become grandparents even earlier, perhaps even in their 30s. These unusually young grandparents face a number of challenges. Becoming a grandparent at a young age can scramble all expectations for the second half of life.

It can also increase joy and, ironically, keep grandparents young. 

Paths to Early Grandparenthood

It's possible to become a grandparent at a very young age by marrying someone older who has children from an earlier marriage. Technically, those who acquire grandchildren in this way are step-grandparents, but for many, the difference is academic. They consider themselves grandparents.

The way most young grandparents are created, however, is when a parent who reproduced at a young age has a child who does the same. Of course, this is happening less often, as the average age of first-time childbearing has risen to over 26 for American women. Still, teen pregnancies continue to occur, accounting for approximately 1 in 7 first births. 

Concerns About New Parents

Many times, young grandparents-to-be are more concerned about the young parents' situation than they are their own. The statistics on teen pregnancy are fairly scary.

The infant mortality rate is considerably higher than average when the mother is a teenager. Many teen moms don't finish high school, and as a group they are less likely to earn a college degree than their peers. Teen fathers aren't as well tracked, but what data there is suggests a similar pattern.

 

Whether the parents are teens or a bit beyond, whether they are married or unmarried, statistics show a likelihood of less favorable outcomes for young parents. Of course, grandparents are concerned. Translating that concern into the right kind of assistance can be tricky. Give too much help, and young parents may not mature into fully responsible adults. Give too little, and everyone in the young family could be at risk. Grandparents want the best for their grandchildren. In seeking to make that happen, it's easy for them to overstep boundaries

In the end, families have to find their own way. Measures that work for one family may not work for others. Clear communication helps, but what helps the most is for grandparents to let the parents do it their way as much as possible, while being available when needed.

Adjusting to Grandparenthood

If concerns about the young parents don't drown it out, most young grandparents-to-be have a hard time seeing themselves as grandparents. Sometimes this disconnect is due to media portrayals of grandparents as gray-haired and curmudgeonly or, even worse, senile. Sometimes we recall our own grandparents, whom we may remember — correctly or incorrectly — as aged and infirm.

Sometimes the reaction is more visceral than intellectual: "I'm too young to be a grandparent!"

One way that some grandparents cope is by choosing a modern grandparent name. Instead of Granny, some choose GaGa or G-Mom. Instead of Grandpa, some choose Chief or Popz. Sometimes, however, the edgy name doesn't take, and young grandparents are stuck with stodgy monikers. Almost without exception, they learn to embrace whatever their grandchildren call them.

A separate issue is that being a grandparent at an early age can put one out of step with peers. It can be hard to turn down going out with friends, even for the joys of babysitting a grandchild. And even the best of friends may tire of hearing about grandchildren when they don't have any of their own.

Becoming a grandparent always requires adjustments, but they are easier adjustments than one might think.

And the joy of meeting a grandchild tends to make all other emotions fade into the background.

Being a Parent and a Grandparent

Young grandparents often have children still at home. They may even have young children at home. When families were larger, it wasn't unusual for the oldest children to have children while their mother was still reproducing. Today it is less common, but it still happens.

The downside of being a parent and grandparent simultaneously is time stress. It can be hard to fully enjoy a grandchild when you have a child of your own who still requires a lot of care. On the plus side, the aunt/uncle and niece/nephew will have ready-made playmates. They may even be able to share or hand down clothing, baby equipment and toys.

When children and grandchildren grow up almost simultaneously, the question of favoritism occasionally rears its head. The most common scenario is that the child accuses the parent of favoring the grandchild. Occasionally the accusation has merit. In our culture grandparents are expected to spoil the grandchildren. But it's hardly fair if a grandparent who is still parenting indulges the grandchild and holds the line on the child. 

When the children in the home are older than the grandchildren, tensions and time struggles can still occur. Usually, however, tweens and teens love being aunts and uncles and may even be expert helpers when grandparents babysit

Career Pressures

A different type of conflict can arise when new grandparents are still mid-career. Many times this is when the demands of a career are greatest. The long hours and stress of a fast-paced job can take a toll on one's ability to be a good grandparent.

Grandparents should take the time to bond with a grandchild as soon as possible, even if it means taking some vacation days. There is no substitute for time spent with a grandchild, especially when the grandchild is young. Frequent contact is one of the factors in grandparent-grandchild closeness. Long-distance grandparents should visit when possible and keep in touch via Skype or Facetime when they can't visit.

 

Grandparents with busy careers may have to grandparent a little differently. Rather than doing elaborate crafts, going on lengthy outings and planning sleepovers, they may have to spend shorter periods of time on simpler pursuits. That may actually be to the good. Several studies suggest that simple activities such as playing outdoors are the ones that children remember most.

For healthy grandparent-grandchild relationships, just being together is the most important thing. That way, when retirement age does come, grandparents will have a healthy basis for a more time-intensive relationship. 

Advantages of Being a Young Grandparent

While young grandparents face some obstacles, their youth also gives them an undeniable edge. They can more easily get down on the floor to play with the grandchildren, and more easily get up. They are less likely to need a nap in the middle of a grandchild visit. As the grandchildren grow up, they are likely to be more in tune with their interests than a grandparent who is 60 plus.

Of course, many grandparents manage to stay fit and hip into their older years, and many more manage to be involved grandparents in spite of reduced mobility. Still, most youthful grandparents enjoy energy, strength and stamina that older grandparents can only envy.

Grandchildren are undoubtedly the best anti-aging formula yet. They motivate grandparents to keep moving, learning and playing. And that applies whether grandparents are young or old, fit or creaky!