It takes nurturing and discipline to raise grandchildren who are struggling with the absence or loss of a parent
By Sylvie de Toledo, LCSW/BCD
Henrietta Casper has a problem. Her 15-year-old grandson is defiant and disrespectful. When she tells him he can’t go out at night, he just walks out the door. Her husband would set firmer rules, but Henrietta can’t stick to them. She promised her daughter on her deathbed that she would always care for Adam, and she can’t find it in herself even to withhold privileges from the boy. Henrietta is falling into a classic grandparenting trap: overcompensation. She is trying to make up for the pain and the loss her grandchild has suffered by attempting to make him happy every moment — in other words, by giving him what he wants.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. Up until now, you have been a grandparent and only a grandparent. You could dote, pamper, spoil, and comfort to your heart’s content. It is hard to realize that you are now a surrogate parent and must also discipline and educate your grandchildren. It can take time for this new reality to sink in. Some grandparents can spend years caught between roles; they stay indulgent grandparents, rarely letting a day go by without buying something, however small, for their grandchildren. Then they don’t understand why they can’t get respect as parents. If you let your grandchildren have French fries and ice cream for breakfast, as one grandma did, it’s hard to make them eat vegetables at dinner. You can’t spoil them and educate them at the same time; you only send them mixed messages.
Grandparents who overcompensate do so materially and emotionally. Not only do they try to soothe their grandchildren with presents and surprises, but they overlook setting limits. They make allowances they never would have made with their own children. For instance, one day my mother told Kevin that he couldn’t’ watch television until he made his bed. An hour later, I found Kevin in front of the television and my mother was making his bed. She never would have done that with us.
It is important to realize that overcompensation doesn’t help a child in the long run. No matter how much you do for your grandchildren, you cannot remove the pain, repair the loss, or fill the void that is inside them. The world has taken away more than you can put back. Nor do you do your grandchildren any favors by giving in. Children need limits to know they are loved and to develop a sense of who they are. All overcompensating does is teach them to expect permissiveness; it lets them feel that the world owes them things and that they don’t have to behave or work to have them. This sense of entitlement can cause all kinds of other problems later in life. Your grandchildren need to deal with their losses in the best way they can, with support and guidance from you and the other adults in their lives. They need a combination of nurturing and discipline, and they need consistency in both. They need to know that you will do what you say you will do, even when they may not like the outcome.
You can’t make up for your grandchildren’s past, but with time and patience, you can build a foundation of trust, love, and security in the present. Real parenting doesn’t bring the immediate smiles and laughter that presents do — sometimes, it brings sour looks and loud complaints—but remember that you are doing more than making your grandchildren happy in the moment. You are giving these children the necessary tools to grow and build their futures.
Excerpted from Grandparents as Parents: A Survival Guide for Raising a Second Family Second Edition, by Sylvie de Toledo with Deborah Edler Brown.
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Sylvie de Toledo, LCSW/BCD, the founder and clinical director of Grandparents as Parents, Inc., is a child kinship-care expert and author.