When Grandparents Are Part Time Care Givers to Grandchildren
It is not uncommon for grandparents to have at least part of the responsibility as care givers for their grandchildren. Part time can range from just a few hours to allow their child and child's spouse a date night to having daily care for a grandchild after school, weekends, or during the summer months. Some grandparents are even full time care givers for their grandchildren.In these situations, it can become confusing as to when Grandmom or Grandpap are free to indulge the grandchild, or when they should be applying firm and consistent boundaries and limits.
Different Hats to Wear
Some grandparents may have a sense that they need to 'change hats' from being the want-to-spoil-my-grandchild-grandparent and the parenting-grandparent, but struggle in doing this or knowing when to do this. Other grandparents are locked into ongoing and unfinished issues with the grandchild's parent (their own child). Separating the two grandparent hats very clearly and methodically is an effective strategy to help care giving go more smoothly for both the grandparent and the parent. When grandparents are confused as to what their role is at any particular time, the child will also be confused and unneeded behavioral chaos and stress will ensue for the child and the care givers.. When the roles remain confused, and the child's behaviors begin to reflect this confusion, there will be the added stress between the grandparent and the child's parent (grandparent's own child).
Often, the problem is that when the role of the care giving grandparent is confused, the child will begin to have behavioral problems with their parent. Because the grandparent indulges or spoils the child (and every grandparent has this right and responsibility, but just not when they are caring for the child), the child's behaviors when with their parent quite often deteriorates. Eventually, the child's behaviors also begin to deteriorate while under the grandparent's care as well, because most children will continue to press the limits of grandparent indulgence when the grandparent is a care giver.
On the other hand, it may be the grandparent who is taking the genuine parenting role that their grandchild's parent is not taking on at all or very little. This then erodes the development of a parent-child relationship between the child and the real parent, often making the child unmanageable for the biological parent. The care giving grandparent may develop resentments that they are not able to enjoy their grandchild as a grandparent, further complicating the relationships.
Source of the Confusion and Difficulty
Most grandparents delight in indulging their grandchildren with treats and special permissions that the child's parents do not make or do not often make. But if the child is being given care (i.e. responsible for the child's basic care and welfare while the parent is not present), such indulgences and spoiling behaviors need to be held for another time. Essentially, while interchangeable, the roles of grandparent and parent are so unique as to be impossible to execute at the same time.
Another source of the difficulty comes when the grandparent and their child still have unfinished parent-child issues. When there is unresolved resentments and issues of history between the grandparent and their child, there can be a situation where the grandchild becomes triangulated into the grandparent-child relationship in a negative way. For example, the grandparent or the biological parent's resentments towards each other can cause either or both to begin to subtly coach or sway the child to misbehave for the other care giver.
If the parent of the child has abdicated the parental role, it is not easy for a child to gain the needed respect and mental image of their biological parent as being the parent. Transferring the primary parenting role back to the biological parent from the grandparent is difficult indeed, and may need professional assistance from a counselor to do so. Essentially, the child needs to have their grandparent to stop being a parent, and their parent to step up to the parental responsibility. This is a tough thing for everyone involved.
Even if the parent and the grandparent have shared and equal responsibility for the care of the child, difficulty can arise if their approach to discipline is too different. While all children can adapt to different adult discipline approaches and all adults will discipline slightly differently not matter how hard they try not to, when the discipline approach is too widely divergent, there will be problems with the child's behaviors and between the two care givers.
The start of the fix for the problem can be accomplished by the grandparent making a firm commitment to separate the two roles for the benefit of the child. This self determination is the first important step that has two parts: making the decision and then sticking to it. Sticking to it may require frequent self reminders as well as communicating with the grandchild and the grandchild's parent that the separation will take place and be continued.
Clear and consistent labeling to the child of which hat is being worn is key. A brief phrase that is used consistently, without variation is often helpful. Something like: 'Until your parent(s) take over, I am Grandma the BOSS', or 'Now that your mom is back, I'm back to being just Grandma'. What you choose to say is up to you, as long as it is clear and consistent.
If there is issues of history and resentment between the grandparent and their own child, this needs to be addressed, either with a heart to heart talk or even with the help of a professional counselor if the issues are that complex. Even with the best intentions, when there is stress and unresolved issues between the grandparent and their child, the grandchild will sense this and suffer from the reactivity of the adults to each other.
Having a frank and honest discussion about discipline approaches, limits and boundaries of child behavior, and plans for giving consequences for naughty behavior is essential in moving forward to a positive outcome. See the Hub articles: Three Important Parts of Giving Consequences for Misbehavior in Children and Using Stacked Consequences as a Discipline Tool in Parenting.