Grandparents of older grandchildren often express sadness over their changing role with grandchildren. Since many young adult grandchildren are in college or the armed forces, grandparents may not get to see them frequently. Other factors may have created physical distance between grandparent and grandchild. Even those grandchildren who live close to grandparents may be harder to connect with than they were when they were younger.
It's important, however, for grandparents to realize that a lessening of contact does not mean that they do not rank high in the hearts of their grandchildren.
The increasing life span means that many grandparents have the opportunity to be in their grandchildren's lives for many years. Fortunate ones will get to see their grandchildren enter middle age. Many grandparents will get to enjoy being great-grandparents, too. Grandparents should not consider their job done when their grandchildren turn 21!
Researchers who have surveyed young adults have found that the young people value their relationship with their grandparents highly. One study has shown that young people struggle less with depression when they have strong bonds with grandparents. (The grandparents benefit, too.)
Roles Grandparents Play
Some grandparents are still involved in the day-to-day life of their older grandchildren, but many times they play more symbolic or mythical roles with their older grandchildren.
The various researchers who have studied grandparenting roles may use slightly different labels, but here are the major functions that they see grandparents performing.
- Grandparents often provide affection and unconditional love. This is probably the role that grandparents are most comfortable in filling.
- Grandparents link the grandchild to his or her past. Grandparents are usually a gold mine of information about family history. And who else can tell grandchildren what their parents were really like as children?
- Many grandparents provide spiritual guidance. Sometimes these are religious values, but they may also be morals, ethics and other advice for living. They may fill this role either by example or by direct teaching.
- Grandparents may instruct the grandchild in issues associated with aging. Sometimes circumstances will cause these lessons to be painful ones. The death of a grandparent is often a child's first loss. On a more positive note, grandparents can demonstrate some of the perks of aging, such as greater wisdom and more leisure time. Since many young people are predisposed to believe the worst about aging, it's important for them to see the sunnier side.
- Some grandparents serve as substitute parents. When their parents are out of town or out of touch, whom do grandchildren call upon? You guessed it.
- Many grandparents give practical support. This role sometimes includes providing financial support, but it does not have to. Grandparents can supply transportation or temporary housing or meet a host of other practical needs.
- Some grandparents may be called upon to mediate between an older child and and a parent. This is a role that many grandparents fill, but it is a tricky one to do well.
Another hallmark of the relationship between grandparents and adult grandchildren is that they can have a relationship that is independent of that between grandparent and parent. That may seem like a minor point, but it can loom large in families with less-than-healthy dynamics.
Distance and Other Factors
The life paths taken by grandchildren can have profound effects upon the grandparent-grandchild relationship. Adult grandchildren may be spouses, parents, students, workers, or world travelers, among other possibilities, and each of these will impact the grandparent-grandchild relationship differently.
Many researchers began their studies with the idea that distance would be an important factor in how grandparents relate to their adult grandchildren, but that has not been proven to be so.
First, since grandparents have come to occupy an almost mythic place in the grandchild's value system, proximity is not necessary for prominence. It's the idea of the grandparent that is so powerful, not the physical presence. Long-distance grandparents may be at a disadvantage, but it's not as large a disadvantage as it is for grandparents of young grandchildren.
Second, technology can effectively overcome distance. Virtual communication may not be quite as satisfying as a warm hug delivered in person, but technological innovations have made it possible to stay close to those who are far away.
Tips for Maintaining Contact
First, if you want to have a prayer of keeping up with your grandchildren, you will have to be tech savvy. Sometimes Skype or FaceTime will work. Sometimes texting is the only way. Whatever works and is currently in favor with your grandchild is what you should use, and that means that you must be nimble in adjusting to technological change.
Second, don't keep score. It doesn't matter who was the last to email or call. If your message went unanswered, don't make a big deal out of it. Most young adults sometimes ignore messages from their friends, when they are extra busy or just not in the mood. Grandparents should expect to be ignored, or overlooked, occasionally. Call or write even if it's not your turn. This relationship is not about turn-taking. In fact, it may be a bit like a marriage, where each side has to give a little extra.
Avoid Being Judgmental
During this time in your grandchild's life, he or she may do some things that you don't approve of, which puts you in a bit of a spot. Experts advise that you tread the middle road. Never say you approve of something if you don't, but don't give your opinion unless asked.
Some grandparents make exceptions to this rule in serious circumstances, such as when a grandchild is deep into substance abuse or other life-threatening behavior. Each grandparent must decide exactly where to draw the line, but being judgmental will almost always result in a deterioration of your relationship with your adult grandchild.
That old bite-your-tongue and mind-your-own-business strategy that works with adult children? It will work with adult grandchildren as well.