Being a long-distance grandparent

Hannah Jolliffe / 08 February 2016

Do your grandchildren live abroad? It’s natural to miss them, but grandparents can play an important role in their lives, whether they are next door or on the other side of the world.

Understanding your grandchildren's normal day-to-day lives is crucial, says Val, who has three long-distance grandchildren from two different sons. “When you’re interested in the children, it makes the parents want to tell you about what they’re doing. I get pictures and videos all the time – like seeing Oliver’s new lace-up shoes for school. It’s good to get told things that you would know if you lived next door, not just the big stuff.”

Read our tips for being a good grandparent

Use technology to communicate

Technology has made it much easier to stay in touch over long distances. Take advantage of emails, phone calls and Skype, and consider using social media and blogs to share photographs and keep an online record of the children’s lives.

When Mary’s grandchildren went on a year-long trip to Europe, her son kept a regular blog for family back home. “The blog was wonderful for following what they were up to,” she says. “I missed them but I looked forward to the blog being updated every day or so.”

If you lack confidence on the computer, ask a relative or friend to help you use Skype. It may seem daunting at first, but once you are set up it’s no harder than using a mobile phone. Not only will it save you money, it will also enable you to interact in a more meaningful way with your grandchildren.

“My grandson was always good at waving and blowing kisses when he was younger, but now he’s five we can have proper conversations,” says Val. “Skype gives you a different way of interacting - they can show you things so you can be more involved.”

Read our guide to making video calls on your iPad

Little ways to be a big part of their lives

Rob Parsons is author of The Sixty Minute Grandparent and founder of Care for the Family, a national charity committed to strengthening family life. “Those who grandparent at a distance are looking for ways to say to a grandchild, ‘I may not be there with you, but you are in my heart’,” he says. Here are some ideas Rob suggests:

  • Start an add-on story through letters or email. You write the first paragraph, send it to your grandchild, then they write the next paragraph and send it back to you and so on.
  • Organise a long-distance treasure hunt. Send small treats to your grandchild’s parents and ask them to hide them one by one. Give your grandchild clues over the phone or by email.
  • Remember that even in a technological age, children love getting things through the post – letters, postcards, little surprises.
  • Create scrapbooks of your visits – photographs, tickets, brochures, stories. Capture those memories to share later.

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How to make the times together count

It’s easy to put pressure on the time you do have together, and one of the greatest difficulties can be too much expectation, says Rob. “We are so looking forward to seeing our grandchildren and we assume that they feel the same way. But especially if they are a little older, the thought of time with us may not be their idea of a good time. Try to not think about what you want, but about what will give them a good experience,” he advises.

“I’m not that worried about having a spectacular holiday, it’s just about being with them – that’s what I like,” says Val. Mary – who has two grandchildren in New Zealand – agrees. “Not ‘doing’ is as valuable as anything else. The important thing is the ‘being’.”

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