Nowadays generations of children and youth are growing up immersed in the virtual world. Their constant connection to the Internet has been confirmed by a recent study conducted by the Brave Phone and the Child Protection Centre of Zagreb. It shows that 99% of the youth have an access to the Internet, and that as many of them as 84% access the Internet via their mobile phones. High percentage (93) of children have a profile on Facebook, and 68% of them opened a profile before they were 13.
Almost on a daily basis, in our clinical practice we meet parents who are helped in bringing up their children by their own parents. We also meet children who share their experience, play and activities with their grandparents. We should bear in mind that most children experience their first relationships and connections in their families with their primary carers or persons who take care of them. Such experience is very important because the child transfers it to his/her future experience in adolescence and adulthood. Thus parents transfer their own parents’ experience into their relationship with their children.
The role of grandparents is especially important in those families where both parents work out of home, in families with single or divorced parents, if the child is sick or has special needs. Supporting parents is extremely important in such families, because they not only cope with usual parenting challenges and care for the child, but with additional care in bringing up the child and with additional life stressors. In some situations it may cause some specific difficulties and deteriorate relationships.
Studies have shown that emotional attachment of grandchildren to their grandparents ranks second to their attachment to their parents, as the strongest and the most intensive emotional relationship children develop (Buljan-Flander and Karlović, 2004).
Grandparents can influence the development of their grandchildren in several aspects:
• Grandparents are a connection to the past and ancestors. Talking about them and about their own experience, grandparents transfer knowledge and can help the child in building his/her identity and sense of belonging
• Grandparents often transfer knowledge about customs and culture of their time, by telling stories, giving recipes, talking about the family tree, thus helping children understand their own origins and their family history, but also the old times
• Unconditional love and support significantly benefit children in contributing to their development of self-esteem
• Grandparents can show that it is possible to learn and have a good life at any age
• Grandparents can be a source of stability and safety by giving advice in various situations
• Grandparents are an “inexhaustible source of knowledge and wisdom” and can teach children various skills
• By being an example of positive values, ideals and beliefs, grandparents can be role-models for their grandchildren, teaching them important values.
Grandparents can enjoy telling stories to their grandchildren, especially the stories from their youth, various activities and they can transfer their knowledge and experience from that period, because grandparents are often in the position of authority regarding family history. That is the reason why children like to listen to their stories, look at the photos from their youth, search through their closets and chests.
However, parents should respect grandparents’ time and avoid taking them for granted as baby-sitters available at any time. Grandparents should be given opportunities and freedom to rest and enjoy their hobbies and activities. Thus they can devote their time to their grandchildren when they are together without feeling pressure.
Many parents complain that grandparents fulfil every children’s wish, that they are lenient in every situation, do not let children cry and interfere in upbringing too much.
Sometimes grandparents even “protect” children from their parents’ setting boundaries. It is important to bear in mind that parents should clearly state that they are “responsible” for the upbringing of their children and everyday decisions regarding after school activities, time to go to sleep and similar. Grandparents should respect parents’ decisions and uphold them when parents are not present. In families without clear boundaries between grandparents’ and parents’ roles, conflicts are not rare, which negatively impacts on children who do not have clear guidelines, become insecure, demanding and confused.
Therefore, it seems crucial to emphasise both for parents and grandparents, that grandparents’ role is of “parenting helpers”, which is not competitive in relation to the children.
It is of utmost importance that parents do not relinquish the leading role in the upbringing of their children to the grandparents, except in special situations when parents are not capable of taking care of their children.
Written by: Nikolina Škrlec, social worker