As border restrictions lift, family reunions are being planned around Australia. This is an exciting but also uncertain time, particularly for grandparents who have been separated from grandchildren.
Over the past months (and in some cases, years), grandchildren will have grown and changed. They may have new interests, routines and skills. You may even have the transformative experience of meeting a new grandchild for the very first time.
With older grandchildren, digital technologies may have kept you in contact and up-to-date. But with younger grandchildren, this is harder, and it may be time to rekindle relationships.
We are researchers investigating the roles grandparents play and the influence this has on families and communities. So, how can grandparents make the most of this time?
The special role of grandparents
Due to increased lifespans, grandparents have more time and ability to invest in their grandchildren than ever before in human history.
The grandparent-grandchild relationship can be a very special one. A grandparent’s involvement in a child’s life, whether through shared actives or a listening ear, is linked to the child’s well-being.
The benefits depend on your family situation, but can include improved psychological adjustment for grandchildren, increased workforce participation for mothers, and a longer and happier life for grandparents.
The importance of asking questions
When preparing to see your grandchildren again, our first suggestion is to ask your grandchild’s parents what they think is a good idea for your first catch-up. What does your grandchild enjoy doing at the moment? What is their daily routine? Is there anything to avoid?
If you are meeting a grandchild for the very first time, bear in mind the parents have gone through huge changes since you last met. As with older children, ask the parents what will suit them in terms of visit type and time.
Be open and honest about what support you think you can provide, and be aware the parents needs may change (they may want more or less help than they anticipated).
When it comes to discussing the changes a new baby has brought, grandparents are trying to juggle in their mind the thrill of participating in their grandchild’s life, without disrupting or overstepping parents’ boundaries. From our yet to be published research, we understand this is not a simple matter for many families, but starting the conversation is important in maintaining these valuable relationships.
Persistent, not pushy
Your grandchildren may be feeling shy when you first meet. So even though this may have been a longed-for reunion, you may need to tread carefully.
This is perfectly normal and can be overwhelming for everyone. Just take your time, and let them get to know you again. Your first instinct will be to catch up on the thousands of lost hugs, but it may work better stay close by and let them come to you.
The good news for grandparents is that several research projects have shown what grandchildren really want is simply for grandparents to be “there when needed”.
So just “being there” – interested and available – for your first visit is perfectly fine. This helps reduce expectations of what you feel you need to do.
Your first inclination may be to bring something exciting to play with together. But on top of seeing each other again, rushing in with a new treat might be too much. You will need to read the room.
Consider taking something small, or maybe you can keep something in the car and bring it out once everyone has warmed up.
Play is obviously central to children’s learning and experience. Early in life, however, this may mean playing alone, which may be confusing for some of us.
A good way to work with this while rekindling your relationship is parallel play, particularly if a child is aged between two and five. Parallel play involves playing next to your grandchild and letting them come to you when they are ready.
This is one way you might need to put the patience and persistence we discussed earlier into practice.
Let grandchildren lead (within reason)
In the same vein, don’t feel as though you need to take the lead when working out what to do with your grandchild, either. Or that your idea for reading a certain book or doing a particular puzzle is the one your grandchild will go with.
Often, seemingly simple activities like a walk to a park are the most rewarding. Here your grandchild has the opportunity to show you about their world and what they like to do on their terms. It is also a good way to see how your grandchild has grown and developed.
We want to show our unconditional affection and love for our grandchildren, this feels natural, and we know it can be so valuable.
But in the the early stages of getting to know each other again, don’t put pressure on you or them. Being available, interested, curious and patient is enough.
Rebecca Bullingham, a masters student in medical and health science at Edith Cowan University, contributed to this article.