AGEISM: Grandparents’ parenting skills: Learning how to better care for your grandchildren

The Bottom Line

  • Parents are primarily responsible for meeting the needs of children, but grandparents play an increasing role in this area.

  • Improving the parenting skills of grandparents has beneficial effects not only on their grandchildren, but also on the grandparents themselves.

  • Have a frank discussion with the parents about how you can best support them and support the development of your grandchildren (keeping in mind your own capacities and means).

It takes a village to raise a child. In the past, several generations were living under the same roof and grandparents contributed to the education and development of their grandchildren. Today, families are smaller, scattered and geographically dispersed. That said, parents often seek help and support to fulfil their parental responsibilities. Many families rely on grandparents to take care of their children on a regular basis.

According to Statistics Canada, it is estimated that 47% of Canadians aged 45 and over are grandparents. Each grandparent has an average of four grandchildren.(1) They are generally very engaged with their grandchildren, whether babysitting them, or supporting and accompanying them during school activities.(2) Nearly 8% of grandparents live with their grandchildren in a shared home.(3) The majority of grandparents who live in a shared home with their grandchildren (88%) also live with one or more persons from the ‘middle generation’ (most commonly a younger couple or a lone parent). The remaining grandparents (12%) live with their grandchildren as primary caregivers and the parents are not present.(4)

Although they have some experience, having raised their own children, grandparents may face new challenges, some of which are unique to their grandchildren’s generation. Can parenting interventions equip them to fulfil their role with grandchildren?

What research tells us

Despite the key role played by grandparents in caring for their grandchildren, the literature on interventions to improve their parenting skills remains limited.

A recent high-quality systematic review identified eight studies conducted mainly in the United States, but also in South Africa and Australia. These studies examined the effects of various parenting interventions targeting grandparents, including: parental coaching programs (including self-help strategies, expressive writing activities, parenting and social skills training, training on common health problems in children, and legal assistance); home visits; social-work activities in group or individualized settings; and summer camps.

The small samples in the studies, the great heterogeneity in the duration of the interventions and the elements evaluated, and the wide range of interventions and professionals delivering these interventions (including parents, social workers, nurses, regulated and non-regulated professionals, and legal professionals) do not allow definitive conclusions to be drawn. However, studies revealed some positive effects of interventions in reducing mental health issues experienced by grandparents, such as depression (six studies), stress (four studies) and anxiety (two studies), as well as improving the quality of life (one study), social interactions (two studies) support (two studies), parenting skills (four studies), communication skills (one study) and adaptability skills (one study).

Learning (again) to become a parent

Grandparents often have an unconditional love for their grandchildren. They are therefore willing and enthusiastic to play a growing role in the lives of their grandchildren. However, it is not easy to define your role and responsibilities as grandparents, so the following tips are suggested:
– remember that, as a grandparent, you can play a significant role in fostering your grandchildren’s early learning and shaping their social and emotional skills;
– have a frank discussion with the parents about how best to support them and support the development of your grandchildren (keeping in mind your own capacities and means);
– call parent support services in your community to talk with other grandparents raising their grandchildren and learn about programs and services that can support you (6); and
– if you think the parents are unable to keep their children safe and to take care of their physical and emotional needs, or if you think your grandchildren are being abused and neglected, report it immediately to the authorities.(6)

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