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Publication #FCS2191

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: Building Strong Families1

Larry Forthun, Millie Ferrer-Chancy, and Angela Falcone2

Goal: To provide grandparents with knowledge and skills to develop positive family relationships.

Strong families are defined as having positive beliefs and values, appropriate rules and boundaries, the ability to adapt, and good communication. This is true for any type of family, including grandparents who are parenting their grandchildren.

Figure 1. 
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Beliefs and Values

Sharing similar values unites and strengthens the family. Although values may differ among families, strong families are similar in that they share time together, have a commitment to each other, and have a positive outlook, even in challenging situations.

Time Together

When you make time together a priority, you show that you appreciate your grandchildren. Family time can be as simple as reading to your grandchildren or playing with them outside. Creating family traditions, such as making Sunday morning breakfasts together, taking evening walks, or celebrating holidays and birthdays, are all ways to spend time together. Other activities you can enjoy together are sharing hobbies, participating in outdoor activities, and playing board games. Taking part in activities together creates lasting memories and strengthens bonds between family members.

Commitment

Family members who are committed to one another can keep promises and support one another through rough times. Commitment takes time and effort to build. You can't expect it to blossom overnight. However, you can develop this family value by sticking with a difficult family situation, even when it seems hopeless.

Positive Outlook

There's no doubt that during tough times it is difficult to be optimistic. However, as the family leader, you can help your family find something positive in every situation and build a stronger family in the process.

One way of building a positive outlook is by focusing on the strengths of each family member. For example, you can share with your grandchildren all the things they did well that day. Another way of building a positive outlook is to avoid ways of thinking that expect your grandchildren ought to, should, or must behave a certain way. When you accept your grandchildren for who they are, rather than who you think they should be, you are able to avoid negative thinking that leads to a pessimistic outlook. If you can be a good example of positive thinking, your family is more likely to develop a positive outlook, too.

Healthy Limits

You should establish healthy limits with your grandchildren when sharing feelings, setting expectations, and giving choices. Healthy limits may include rules that reflect your beliefs and values, as well as boundaries that help you distinguish your needs from your grandchildren’s needs.

Sharing Feelings

How do you know if what you want to share with your grandchildren is appropriate? You must consider how it will affect your grandchildren. If you were to tell your grandchildren the details of your experience, would they become confused, burdened, or overwhelmed? If so, it's probably not a good idea to share these details. Remember, sharing feelings is important. However, be selective and careful about sharing specific details that may be uncomfortable for your grandchildren.

Setting Expectations

How do you know if the expectations you have for your grandchildren are appropriate? The best way to know is to better understand the stages of child development (for more information, see FY1112/FCS2186a Crash Course in Child Development, available at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy1112). For example, it would be inappropriate to let your granddaughter, age 7, decide when to go to bed. At 7 years old, your granddaughter does not have the ability to understand the consequences of going to bed late. On the other hand, negotiating a bed time with your 14-year-old grandson would be more appropriate because he can understand the consequences of going to bed late and likely needs to feel he has a say in making some decisions. Having realistic expectations for your grandchildren's behavior will help you establish household rules that are both consistent and flexible.

Giving Choices

How do you know when to give choices to your grandchild? First, it is important to consider your grandchildren's safety: Will they still be safe if they are free to make a particular decision? Next, you need to consider the role you play in giving choices. Taking too much control of your grandchildren's decisions may lead to over-dependence and difficulty making independent decisions as they mature. However, being permissive can lead to too much independence and can result in the failure to recognize negative consequences for actions. So, how do you find the balance? Begin by asking yourself the following questions:

If I realize my behavior is too controlling...

  • Can I trust my grandchild to do what he is ready to do?

  • Am I willing to let her make safe decisions and learn from her mistakes?

  • Can I let go for the sake of creating a healthy relationship?

If I realize my behavior is too permissive...

  • Am I aware of the importance in guiding my grandchild's choices?

  • Am I willing to provide support in helping him make decisions?

  • Am I willing to play an active role in her life for the sake of creating a strong relationship?

Ability to Adapt

Learning to adapt to change takes practice. It is not easy when you have a set way of believing or doing things. Adapting means making compromises and perhaps changing the way you react to situations. Make sure you choose your battles wisely and consider what's most important in your grandchild's development.

For example, suppose you always have dinner ready at 5 p.m. Your grandchild has recently decided she wants to join the school band and will not get home till 6 p.m. Do you: a) change dinner time on band nights, or b) tell her she can't join the school band?

If you answer a) change dinner time on school nights, you have shown adaptability. By being adaptable, you're well on your way to building strong relationships. Remember, change is inevitable. By adjusting to new situations you can prevent unnecessary conflict.

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Good Communication

Good family communication opens the doors to healthy relationships. However, genuine communication is not always easy. It takes heartfelt commitment and effort by everyone in the family. Below are a few characteristics of good family communication.

Be a Good Listener

Being a good listener means giving a person your undivided attention without interruptions. It means stopping and thinking before judging or reacting.

Jumping to conclusions can occur if we fail to listen to what another person is saying—we hear what we want to hear instead of what is actually said. To avoid this barrier, you need to make a commitment to listen, understand, and avoid making a quick judgment.

Use Kind Words

Nothing destroys communication faster than the use of unkind words. When you use unkind words, people tend not to listen to you. They close up and are less likely to share their true feelings. Avoid words that ridicule, shame, and discourage family members. By focusing on the positive traits of each family member, you help create a climate of mutual love, respect, and good communication (see HE789/FCS2021 Winning Ways to Talk with Your Children at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/he789).

Take the Other's Perspective

When you communicate with your grandchildren, it's important to recognize and express your understanding of their feelings. When we only listen to a child's words we may miss the meaning of what is actually said. For example, a child's "I don't care" may mean "I'm frustrated, angry or sad." The key to understanding what the other person feels is to acknowledge his or her feelings. You might say, "You really seem upset" or "Your pain must be awful." When someone takes the time to understand our feelings, it can help us to feel loved and safe.

Developing the knowledge and skills required to have strong relationships takes practice and commitment. It's certainly not an easy task. But, be assured that the benefits outweigh all the hard work that is needed. The ways you guide and interact with your family will make a lasting impact on your grandchildren.

Develop Your Skills With Practice

Acknowledging feelings is a skill that takes practice. Many people rely on traditional responses, such as "Don't get so upset about it" or "I know just how you feel." Yet, when this happens they are really denying the person's feelings. The following exercises can help you practice empathy statements. List the child's possible feeling and your response to this feeling. In your responses, avoid asking questions or giving advice.

Example

Child: "Jennifer made fun of me in school."

Child's feeling: Embarrassment

Wrong response: What did you do to her?

Correct response: That must have been embarrassing.

Practice Your Skills Below

1. Child: "I hate my mom."

Child's feeling: ___________________________

Wrong response: _________________________

Correct response: ________________________

2. Child: "I don't want Sarah (sister) using my clothes."

Child's feeling: ___________________________

Wrong response: _________________________

Correct response: ________________________

Possible Answers

1. Child's feeling: Angry, resentful, abandoned, disappointed

Wrong response: "Don't say you hate your mom."

Correct response: "Sounds like you're really angry at your mother."

2. Child's feeling: Annoyed, frustrated, angry

Wrong response: "You're being so selfish."

Correct response: "It annoys you when she borrows your clothes."

References

Gottman, J. (1997). Raising an emotionally intelligent child: The heart of parenting. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Olson, D. H., DeFrain, J., & Skogrand, L. (2011). Marriages and families: Intimacy, diversity, and strengths (7th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Walsh, F. (2006). Strengthening family resilience (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Publications.

Footnotes

1.

This document is FCS2191, one of a series of the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension. First published: March 2002. Latest revision: July 2013. Please visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Larry Forthun, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences; Millie Ferrer-Chancy, Ph.D., emeritus professor; Angela Falcone, former FYCS graduate student; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.