Understanding Why Your Grandchildren Act The Way They Do—Suggestions For Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

Family Caregiving September 23, 2015 Print Friendly and PDF

All children go through what are called "stages of development." In other words, how children look, think, feel and behave changes as they grow and develop. Many things, including a child's genetics and physical makeup, play a role in this change. A person's childhood experiences also play a role in how a child acts. For this reason, being raised by a grandparent can affect a child’s development.

Children’s development falls into four main areas: 1) physical and motor development; 2) cognitive, or thinking, development; 3) social and emotional development; and 4) communication and language development. Children develop in these areas in fits and starts, not in one smooth pattern. In general, though, they show similar behaviors at certain ages: birth, six months, between six months and one year, between a year and two years, between two and three years, between four and five years, between five and seven years, and and between seven and eight years. Other similarities in development can be seen as children continue to grow and enter adolescence.

Children Living with Grandparents May Need Extra Help

Grandparents caring for their grandchildren may notice that children have problems or get "stuck" in a developmental stage. They may also have "delayed development," meaning they're behind, or not doing things they should be doing at their age. For example, a three-year-old should be able to speak in simple sentences. Not talking or using only a few words may be a sign of delayed development.

Because of their difficult histories, children living with grandparents may be likely to have developmental delays or problems. The children, and their grandparents, may need extra help coping. For grandparents, caring for a child with developmental delays can be physically, emotionally and financially draining. Developmental delays can also lead to health, school and family problems. Grandparents caring for children with developmental problems may want to consider seeking professional help from therapists, doctors or teachers.

Good Relationships Lead to Healthy Children

While grandparents should be on the lookout for developmental problems, they should also work to ensure their grandchild develops good relationships with friends and family members. Why? Because healthy relationships are key to a child's development and have long-lasting benefits. They can result in a secure, well-adjusted child who is able to cope with life's ups and downs.

Relationships with parents and grandparents, especially if the grandparents care for the child, are extremely important. Pivotal relationships like these, which a child forms with the most special people in his or her life, are called "attachments."

Children may form an attachment with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, babysitters and others. By the time a child is 18 months, he or she usually has formed attachments with a few special people. Researchers have studied four types of attachments: one type is secure, three are insecure.

A positive, or secure, attachment relationship has these qualities: it is sensitive, loving, stable, open, responsive, trustworthy and affectionate. Children who experience healthy, or secure, attachment relationships have been found to have healthy self-esteem, greater self-confidence, better learning in school, and good relationships with other children.

Insecure attachments or relationships may be insensitive, untrustworthy, unstable, isolated, unavailable, and inconsistent. Children who have insecure attachments may grow up to avoid close relationships, or feel confused and afraid of close friendships. Insecure, or unhealthy, attachments may cause a child to withdraw, lack curiosity, become easily frustrated, or to become angry and aggressive.

Bad Relationships Can Be Overcome by Good Ones

Children develop relationships in stages and along pathways – optimal, resilient or problematic pathways. In an optimal pathway, an infant forms a secure relationship with a caregiver. As a result of this healthy foundation, as the child grows, he or she expects – and develops – positive relationships with others.

The other relationship paths – resilient and problematic – occur when relationships are disrupted or broken. In a resilient relationship, a child forms a secure relationship with a caregiver, despite the disruption. In a problematic relationship, a child forms an insecure, or troubled, relationship with a caregiver. As a result, the child grows up to expect and develop poor relationships.

Children can have an insecure, or poor, relationship with their parents and still develop good relationships with grandparents and others. Grandparents caring for children can learn more about attachment by consulting the online publication, Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: Through the Eyes of a Child and reading Relationship Expectations: Now and in the Future.

Love and Support Help Children Deal With Stress

Major changes, such as not living with their parents, can affect every aspect of a child's life, including their behavior, thoughts and feelings. The way a child responds to life changes differs from how adults respond. They may not be able to talk about their feelings, such as sadness, depression, and hopelessness. Like other stages in child development, children go through stages in the way they respond or cope.

The three stages of responding to major life changes are identified as: protest, despair and detachment. Each stage has certain corresponding behaviors, thoughts and feelings. For example, the protest stage is characterized by temper tantrums, thinking the parent will return, and feeling frightened and alone. In the despair stage, children may be quiet and withdrawn, blame themselves, and demand attention. Detachment may include making new friends, thinking relationships aren't important, and feeling depressed. All of these reactions are normal and represent ways that children try to understand and cope with major life changes.

How children handle stress during a major change, such as a loss of the parents' daily presence, also depends on the child's situation, attachment relationships and genes. A grandparent can help a child by showing love and support, following a set routine, talking to the child's teachers, and getting outside help when needed. It's important that grandparents also seek help and support for themselves. They can do this by talking to trusted friends, family doctors or spiritual advisors, or by contacting supportive community services.

Talking Honestly Helps Children Feel Safe

Open and honest communication, especially with and about parents, is crucial for grandparents caring for grandchildren.

Open communication means taking time to listen, assuring the child that you hear what he or she is saying, and talking about facts and feelings honestly. Honest communication is important because it helps children feel safe and understood. One way to reassure your grandchild, and confirm your good intentions, is to help grandchildren stay in touch with their parents, whether through face-to-face visits, phone or e-mail. Of course, there are some cases where it is not safe for children to be in contact with their parents.

If parental contact is an option, it should begin as soon as possible, take place as often as possible, and in a place where children will feel most comfortable. Children benefit most when contact is positive, predictable and consistent. If possible, make parental contact part of a routine.

Keep in mind that what your grandchildren hear about their parents will affect their relationships with you and their parents. Also, consider their age and feelings. Don't tell a young child too much; this can do more harm than good. While it's a delicate balance, also try to avoid telling the child too little, and never bend the facts or lie.

Listen to a Child’s Actions, Not Just Their Words

When it comes to listening to your grandchildren, you'll have to rely on their behavior, as they often don't have words for their thoughts and feelings. They may "act out," with aggressive or inappropriate behavior, or withdraw. They may simply not know how to express themselves.

You can help your grandchildren become good communicators by modeling, or showing how to communicate honestly. Talking about your feelings shows your grandchildren how to express their feelings. You may have to help your grandchild find the right word or name for their feelings – sad, mad, hurt or happy. Think about how you interact with your grandchild and ask yourself how you might do things differently, or in more positive ways.

Despite Their Behavior, Children Need Understanding and Love

Children act the way they do for many reasons. They may be unhappy about a person or event, they may want attention, or they simply may not know any other way to express their feelings. You can help a child behave appropriately by the way you respond.

Children's behavior may be caused by fear, depression, anger, confusion or frustration. As a result, they may withdraw, throw a tantrum, be depressed, or experience eating and sleeping problems. Serious behavior problems include a child hurting himself or talking about hurting people or animals; not eating for several days; sleeping too much; lying or stealing. A child who does any of these things may be asking for help in the only way he knows how.

Keep in mind that no matter how a child behaves, he or she needs your love and understanding. Children who can't control their feelings or behavior need your help. As the main caregiver in your grandchild's life, you must provide a safe, secure environment. You can do that by adopting a parenting style that responds to the child's needs, respects the child's point of view and guide's the child's independence.

If you are unable to help the child, seek help from a trusted friend, teacher or day-care provider, spiritual advisor, doctor, or therapist.

Break Negative Patterns by Building on Strengths

If you find yourself or your family caught in a cycle of negative communication or behavior, think about changing your life and breaking out of those patterns to create supportive, life-affirming habits. Problems don't have to be passed down to the next generation. A cycle of abuse and neglect, which may have been present in one generation, can end.

One key to breaking negative patterns is reinforcing positive ones. You can do that in the way you interact with your grandchildren and others. All families have strengths. Building on your family's strengths will help steer a path toward healthy family interactions.

Many sources of help exist for grandparents seeking to create healthy lives for themselves and their grandchildren. They include doctors, therapists, friends, teachers, spiritual advisors, child welfare services and county aging offices. Other resources can be found in the library, for children and grandchildren, and online.

One resource for grandparents caring for children is the on-line publication, Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: Through the Eyes of a Child.


  • Mary Brintnall-Peterson, Ph.D., Program Specialist in Aging, University of Wisconsin-Extension


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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.