Parents and grandparents: Fostering harmony

Grandparents today have fewer grandkids than they did in the past. As a result, they tend to be more involved in the children’s lives. But what exactly is their role? And what benefits do they provide? Sometimes, conflicts can arise between parents and grandparents. In the following articles, experts offer advice on how to deal with difficult situations.


The role and benefits of grandparents

Grandparents today have fewer grandkids than they did in the past. As a result, they tend to be more involved in the children’s lives. But what exactly is a grandparent’s role?

By Nathalie Vallerand

“More time, more hands, and more love.” That’s how Claudette Guilmaine, a retired social worker and family mediator, summarizes the role of grandparents. “What they contribute is valuable to both grandkids and young parents,” she says. For their grandchildren, grandparents are a wellspring of love and attention, while for parents, they can provide emotional support, lend a hand with the kids, and help out with all sorts of little favours.

However, except in rare circumstances, the role of raising a child should fall to the parents. “This doesn’t mean that grandparents should give their grandchildren free rein,” says Suzanne Vallières, psychologist and author of Le Psy-guide des grands-parents, a psychologist’s guide to grandparenting. “It simply means that it’s not up to them to teach their grandchildren responsibility and autonomy.” For example, it’s better for grandparents to avoid meddling in matters of discipline when parents are present.

Ideally, the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren should be based on play and fun. When they’re together, the kids have Grandma and Grandpa’s full attention. This makes them feel interesting and important, which helps boost their self-esteem.

Loving grandparents also help nurture their grandchildren’s emotional security. “They become a calming presence for their grandchildren, who feel reassured that they can count on several adults who love them,” says psychoeducator Stéphanie Deslauriers.

A helpful resource for parents

Many grandparents help out in a variety of ways, such as by picking the kids up from daycare once in a while, looking after them when they’re sick or when their parents need a break, cooking the occasional meal, or running errands. This makes it easier for parents to balance all their responsibilities and relieves a bit of stress.

“Parents who don’t have this resource sometimes find it difficult to get everything done,” Vallières says. “When the pandemic started, we saw how quickly families ran out of steam when they could no longer rely on grandparents.”

Grandparents can also provide support by lending an ear during moments of doubt, anxiousness, or discouragement. Having someone to talk to helps parents feel less alone and provides an outlet for any pent-up emotions.

That said, “it’s best if grandparents only give their opinion on parenting when asked,” Vallières cautions. If not, tensions may arise. Issues such as safety, family rules, the grandparents’ involvement, or the parents’ values can also lead to conflict. You’ll find tips on what to do in these situations on the following pages.

Overcoming challenges: 5 common situations

We asked families to tell us about difficult situations they’ve experienced. Here are some suggestions for improving the parent-grandparent relationship when tensions arise.

We asked families to tell us about difficult situations they’ve experienced. Here are some suggestions for improving the parent-grandparent relationship when tensions arise.

1- Absent or overly present: What to do?

“Our son was born at the beginning of the pandemic. As a result, his paternal grandparents weren’t able to meet him, and since then, they’ve done nothing to get to know him. It feels like our child will never have a relationship with them. It saddens and frustrates both his father and me.” — Samia

The best way to improve things is to start a conversation. But be careful—your child’s grandparents may go on the defensive if you openly criticize them for not being involved. It’s best to bring up the subject by saying what you’d like to see happen: namely, for all of you to spend more time together because you feel it’s important for your child to bond with them.

It would also be helpful to try to understand why they are absent from your child’s life. Do they lack the time? Do they have health problems? Do babies make them uncomfortable? Do they feel unprepared? Are they afraid of being overwhelmed? Perhaps they find little satisfaction in being grandparents. It’s important to keep an open mind. Is it possible that you share some responsibility for the situation? “Some grandparents stay away from their grandchildren because they feel they can’t take care of them without the parents trying to control everything,” says psychologist Suzanne Vallières.

Depending on what your child’s grandparents tell you, you can decide whether it would be possible to see each other more often. However, it’s important to respect their limits and expectations. “You can’t force a relationship,” says retired social worker Claudette Guilmaine. “Sometimes you just have to let go of the dream of perfect grandparents.”

Of course, it’s also important to respect the limits of grandparents who dote on their grandchildren and are generous with their time. “Grandparents have the right to say no,” says Guilmaine. “Their help should never be taken for granted.” Parents should be appreciative and thank them for all they do.

When a grandparent oversteps

Most grandmas and grandpas are crazy about their grandchildren and eager to see them as often as possible. But if their constant presence is becoming too much, it’s best to set limits right away. The same goes for grandparents who butt in and behave as if they were your child’s parents. If you don’t say anything, you’ll likely become increasingly frustrated, which can lead to conflict.

To ensure the conversation goes as smoothly as possible, it’s always preferable to avoid making accusations and to focus instead on what you want: “We need more alone time with our child . . . Please call before you come over . . . We appreciate your help, but we’re the ones who should be making the decisions about our child’s education . . .” etc. It’s also best if each partner talks to their own parents separately.

2- Sweets and safety

“When my parents babysit, my kids eat poorly and spend a lot of time in front of screens. I compensate afterwards by giving them more vegetables and reducing screen time. But what worries me most is my children’s safety.
When they stay with their grandparents, medications aren’t kept out of reach, access to the swimming pool isn’t fenced off, the car seats aren’t properly installed . . . When I bring these things up with my parents, they reply that they’ve raised kids before and that nothing bad has ever happened.” — Mélanie

When it comes to family rules, such as nutrition, screen time, or bedtime, it’s good to put things into perspective, as Mélanie does. If your child sees Grandma twice a month and she gives them candy, is that really so bad?

As long as there is no danger to your child’s health and safety and the grandparents don’t go overboard, it’s in your best interest to compromise on certain issues,” says Vallières. “If you’re too strict, they may feel discouraged. They may not want to look after their grandchildren in the future. It would be a shame to deprive your child of a valuable emotional bond over a matter of principle.” Especially since being exposed to different situations helps children learn to adapt, which is a useful life skill.

Do you worry that your child will ask for the same privileges at home? “Children can understand that at Grandma and Grandpa’s, the rules are a little different,” says Vallières. “You just have to explain it to them.”

Never compromise on safety

However, when it comes to your child’s safety, there is no room for compromise. It’s important to gently make their grandparents aware of possible dangers. If applicable, you can also point out that there are rules and regulations that must be followed (in the car, for example), and that they risk being fined if they don’t follow them.

The goal isn’t to criticize your little one’s grandparents, but rather to inform them. “It’s been a while since they had a young child in their home,” says psychoeducator Stéphanie Deslauriers. “It’s normal for them not to see all the risks.” Deslauriers suggests helping grandparents child-proof their home: remind them to store prescription medications out of reach of little hands, show them how to install a car seat, etc. “If you’re still worried after taking these steps, it’s better to suggest that grandparents come visit you rather than have your children stay with them,” she adds.

How to react as a grandparent

If you’re a grandparent, how should you respond to requests regarding your grandchildren’s safety? It’s best to keep an open mind and to avoid taking things personally. “Your son or daughter isn’t trying to hurt you—they just want to protect their child,” says Deslauriers.

Remember also that times have changed, and what we know has evolved. For example, it used to be that babies were supposed to sleep on their stomach. Now we know that they should sleep on their back (to prevent sudden infant death syndrome). Respecting parents’ wishes will help you gain their trust—and perhaps more time with your grandchildren!

3-Conflicting values

“My parents are practising Christians. They’ve had a hard time accepting that my son isn’t baptized. They talk to him about Jesus when he spends a few days with them, and they even had him blessed without telling me.” — Éliane

Whether it’s religion, vegetarianism, gender-neutral education, voluntary simplicity, positive parenting, or something else, grandparents sometimes have a hard time accepting their children’s lifestyle choices. Here are some tips on how to get along despite disagreements.

“Let me give you some advice”
How should you respond when a grandparent gives you advice that you don’t intend to follow and you don’t want to get into an argument about it? If general wisdom has changed, you can say: “I know that’s how things were when you had your children, but now it’s recommended to . . .” Another strategy is simply to tell them you’ll think on it.
  • Respect the parent’s right to decide. Grandparents have the right to be disappointed by some of their children’s choices, but they should avoid criticizing or contradicting parents’ decisions. Doing things on the sly with their grandchild and asking them not to tell their parents is particularly harmful. “In addition to undermining their parents’ authority, this can lead to confusion and conflicting loyalties for the child,” says Guilmaine.
  • Be calm before you start a discussion. Some sensitive topics, such as religion, can make communication difficult. If emotions start running high and the conversation gets heated, it’s best to postpone the discussion. Meeting in a neutral place, such as a coffee shop or a park, can help keep things calm.
  • Think of the child. Do not discuss difficult topics when the child is present. This way, they won’t feel caught between their parents and grandparents. It’s also important not to badmouth anyone in front of the child or use them to get your messages across.
  • Raise one point at a time. “If you don’t agree on several issues, try not to deal with them all at once,” Vallières advises. “Otherwise, the other person will feel like they’re being attacked.”
  • Let it go—maybe. With a topic that can lead to conflict, it’s sometimes best to step back. Ask yourself if you should just let some things go. For example, maybe you can accept that Grandpa talks to your child about religion, even though you’ve decided not to raise them that way. Or perhaps you could let some of Grandma’s comments slide in the interest of avoiding yet another argument on the subject. It’s up to you to decide what you’re willing to accept.

4- When a parent refuses to allow a grandparent to see their grandchildren

“I haven’t been allowed to see my 4-year-old granddaughter for several months now. At a family dinner, my daughter’s new partner yelled at my granddaughter and said mean things to her. When my daughter didn’t say anything, I intervened. Since then, she’s cut all ties with me. She even refused the family mediation I proposed. What should I do?” — Sylvie

If you’re in this situation, you can start by contacting the Association des grands-parents du Québec (French only), which offers a helpline for grandparents (1-866-745-6110) as well as a lot of useful information. If this is not enough, you can turn to the courts. The law states that parents cannot prevent grandparents from seeing their grandchildren, unless there is a serious reason.

However, family lawyer Véronique Cyr recommends trying to find common ground with the parents before exploring legal options. “Legal action should be your last resort. Going to court is a lengthy and expensive process. And it’s someone you don’t know—the judge—who will end up making a decision for your family.”

To facilitate communication with your grandchild’s parents, you can try family mediation. You can also ask a neutral third party to lead your discussions (e.g., a social worker, a psychologist, or someone from a family organization). There are fees involved, but they’re often less expensive than the legal route. In addition, don’t hesitate to seek psychotherapy to help you deal with the situation and communicate better.

What if you can’t resolve the conflict and you decide to go to court to see your grandchild again? “The letter of formal notice you send to the parents should not be phrased as a declaration of war,” says Cyr. Ideally, you should offer one last invitation to talk to try to resolve your disagreement without having to go before a judge.

What to expect if you go to court

The default position of the court is that a child benefits from having a relationship with their grandparents. For parents who wish to prevent this relationship, the onus is on them to prove that it is harmful to the child.

“The grandparents’ alleged behaviour must be serious and recurring,” says Cyr. “A squabble between parents and grandparents that does not impact the child is unlikely to be considered sufficient grounds for denying contact.

When rendering their decision, the judge will take the best interests of the child into account, not the wishes of the parents and grandparents. If they choose to allow the relationship, the judge may propose a visiting rights schedule adapted your situation. The conditions can vary: four visits per year, one visit per month, at the grandparents’ home or at a neutral location, with the parents or a trusted person present, with or without overnight stays, phone calls only, etc.

5- Distant grandparents: Out of sight, but close to heart

“We live far from our grandchildren. How do we create and maintain a meaningful relationship with them?” — France and Charles

There are different ways of being part of a grandchild’s life, even from a distance. Here are a few examples:

For grandparents

  • Once a week, read a story to your grandchild during a video call or regularly send them books in the mail. “The idea is to create a ritual that the child will look forward to,” says Guilmaine.
  • Set up a virtual meeting with your grandchild every weekend so they can tell you about their week.
  • Send photos or videos of yourself from your cellphone.
  • Write letters to your grandchild or subscribe them to a magazine so you can talk about it via video chat.

For parents

  • Make a recipe from your childhood and ask your child to call or send a video to Grandma and Grandpa to tell them how good it was.
  • Give your child a photo album of your parents that they can look through whenever they want.
  • Ask your child to choose one of their drawings (from daycare, for example) to send to Grandma and Grandpa in the mail. Do this once a month, or as often as you like!
  • Regularly send your child’s grandparents photos and short videos of your little one. It only takes a few seconds, and it brings so much joy.

When a grandparent dies

The death of a grandparent is often a child’s first time experiencing the loss of a loved one. While too young to understand what’s happening, they can still feel the grief and stress of those around them.

The death of a grandparent is often a child’s first time experiencing the loss of a loved one. While too young to understand what’s happening, they can still feel the grief and stress of those around them.

Your child may react by crying or fussing more, eating less, sleeping poorly, etc. According to Lynne Pion, speaker and author of the children’s book Est-ce que tout le monde meurt?, since young children are like emotional sponges, the most important thing to do as their parent is stay calm.

“Your child needs reassurance,” she says. “For example, you can pick them up, cuddle them, and let them know that you’re sad because Grandpa died. Even if they don’t understand the words, they’ll be comforted.” It’s also best to stick to their routine as much as possible.

What should I say?

At 3 to 5 years old, your child has a limited understanding of death. Though they understand that the deceased person’s heart is no longer beating and that the person can no longer hear or speak, the permanence of death still eludes them. They believe that it can be undone, that Grandpa will come visit the next day.

It’s best if you simply tell them that when a person dies, it’s for “forever and ever,” and they won’t be coming back.

At the same time, you can reassure your child that they can still think about all the good times they had with Grandpa, and that they will always have happy memories of him.

Avoid talking about a death just before bedtime. After you’ve said goodnight and your child is by themself, they may start to imagine all sorts of things.

It’s equally important to choose your words carefully. “If you tell your child that their grandmother died because she was sick, they may think she simply had a cold,” says Pion. “They may become afraid that they could die too, or that something similar might happen to you. That’s why I would suggest saying that Grandma was ‘very, very, very’ sick.”

The same issues can arise if you say that Grandma has gone to sleep forever (your child will be afraid to go to sleep) or that she’s gone on a long trip (they’ll always be waiting for her to come back, or they’ll be anxious when a loved one travels). It’s better to state the truth using simple language: “Grandma had cancer. It’s a very serious disease. Sometimes, people heal from cancer, but not always.” It’s also important to explain that death is not contagious.

Should they go to the funeral?

Should your child go to the funeral? Pion believes they should. “It will help them gain a better understanding of death and give them the chance to say goodbye, which will help with the grieving process.” Moreover, a death is a significant event in a family. “It’s important for your child to be involved in the customs associated with death, because they have a strong need to feel they belong, whether on happy or unhappy occasions,” Pion continues. “Don’t forget that what your child needs most is to feel loved and reassured and to know that you recognize how they’re feeling.”

Things to keep in mind
  • It’s important to encourage contact between a child and their grandparents, as the emotional bond they share is precious.
  • To maintain harmony, grandparents should support the educational choices of parents.
  • Communicating, showing empathy, and accepting each other’s differences can help parents and grandparents find a balance between their roles.
  • When a grandparent dies, it’s important to tell your child without trying to hide the truth.


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, January–February 2018
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Nathalie Parent, psychologist



  • Parent, N. Accompagner l’enfant qui vit un deuil, Educatout, 36 pp.
  • Association des grands-parents du Québec
  • and 1-866-7456110 (French only).
  • Pion, L. Est-ce que tout le monde meurt? Éditions C.A.R.D., 2015, 100 pp.
  • Vallières-Lavoie, G., and S. Vallières, Le Psy-guide des grands-parents. Les Éditions de l’Homme, 2021, 160 pp.
  • Ferland, F. Grands-parents aujourd’hui. Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2012, 156 pp.
  • Parent, N. Pour grands-parents seulement! Les Éditions Québec-Livres, 2013, 176 pp.


Photos (in order): Nicolas St-Germain, GettyImages/monkeybusinessimages, GettyImages/Nikola Ilic, GettyImages/Johnce, GettyImages/monkeybusinessimages, GettyImages/romrodinka, GettyImages/Georgijevic, GettyImages/Delmaine Donson et GettyImages/Kuzmichstudio