Relationships with Grandparents

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Societies assign different roles to grandparents. In North American and European countries, the grandparents’ function varies considerably from group to group and from family to family. In some cases, the grandparents carry the main parental authority. Their wishes and decisions are binding on their adult children and may significantly affect the handling of their grandchildren. Other groups conceive of the ideal grandparent as an ever-available, yet never intruding, additional parent—one who is a little less strict and more tolerant than the parent, who supports the child to some extent against the parent, and somewhat softens the parent’s authority, but who never interferes in the child-parent relationship.

Given the grandparent’s role as additional parent, substitute parent, or “super parent,” the grandchild may look to them for comfort and support when a bit at odds with parents, in need of some respite from them, or enjoying the satisfaction of an additional and different relationship.

Such relationships may, in a helpful way, enrich the child’s experience and lessen her or his total dependence on the parents. In practice, it is rare for all four grandparents to be alive and available. They may be ill or live far away, or they simply may be unable to maintain appropriate relationships with their children and grandchildren. Inappropriate relationships may be intolerant and critical of the parents’ parental functioning, causing resentments and loyalty conflicts between the generations; they may be so demanding of the parent’s care and attention that they become the young child’s rival; or they may be disinclined to participate in any way in the lives of the parents and children.

Regardless of individual circumstances, grandparents still play a special part in the children’s lives, and these relationships are eagerly sought once children are developmentally ready for connection beyond the basic child-parent bonds. The parents’ close relationship with the grandparents forms an important link. As happens with mother’s fondness for father, and with both parents’ affection for the other siblings, children want to get to know and love those who share in the parents’ affection.

The grandparents are also important in another way. They represent the continuity of the changing generations (the proof that parents were once children and that children may grow up to be parents), they afford a look into the past (it is comforting to know that parents were not always powerful and perfect), and they provide a look into the future (there is room in the world for parents and children when one grows up).

Children rarely tire of hearing grandparents’ stories of the parents’ childhood, especially if they demonstrate early shortcomings. Children are always glad to know that their parents may become grandparents in time, because sometimes young children feel that growing up may leave no place for their parents. This is especially significant and welcome for the preschooler who struggles to find her or his place in the family and with the order of things, to come to terms with what she or he is now, whence she or he came, and whither she or he is going in life. At later phases in their development, and under especially fortunate circumstances, children and grandparents may even develop a relationship that comes close to friendship.

Children usually miss grandparents even when they never had one. When children, usually as preschoolers, become interested in growing up and learn that their parents were once young, they inquire into who took care of them. This leads to the wish to get to know the grandparents, the joy in finding that she or he has a special tie with them, or the disappointment that she or he does not. Many youngsters spontaneously seek out other older people when their grandparents are dead or absent.  They may take a special liking to other relatives of the grandparents’ generation, to elderly neighbors, or friends of the family. As a result, many families have unofficial “adopted” grandparents who fill important links between the generations.


Barney Greenspan, PhD

Dr. Greenspan is currently in full-time solo independent practice (Meridian, Idaho) as a clinical psychologist, child/adolescent psychoanalyst and zen practitioner with clients at all developmental stages.