How to Tell Grandchildren You Can’t See Them

 

Grandparents are best known for overindulging their grandchildren, not refusing their requests for visits. Yet that is the position in which many grandparents find themselves during this pandemic. To prevent contracting coronavirus from their grandchildren, they tell them to keep away until this health crisis finally passes. Or they agree to see them but maintain a safe but awkward distance, withdrawing from their hugs and avoiding their kisses.

For young children, especially, who may not understand the health risks, these abrupt changes in their grandparent’s behavior may be confusing or hurtful. For the grandparent, the possibility they could be harming their grandkids and marring their relationships causes them anguish. The longer the pandemic drags on, the more guilty they feel.

To help grandchildren better understand, accept and cooperate with the situation, here are some strategies:

Be clear about the limits you’ve set: Each grandparent will determine in his or her own mind what degree of contact with their children and grandchildren is comfortable for them by considering their ages and health status, their interactions with others, and the local conditions in our communities. They should then tell them directly about the concrete plans they’d like them to follow to accommodate their preferences. Children and grandchildren can question their judgment—they often do--but not over-rule it.

Balance firmness with reassurance: Grandparents should be straightforward in explaining their choices and firm in upholding them but reassuring in tone. For example, they might say: These are temporary safety precautions that are regrettable but necessary. It doesn’t mean we love each other any less. We’ll get through this stronger and closer than ever.

Use other means of communicating: Grandchildren have grown up using computers for gaming, schooling and chatting with friends. For them, meeting grandparents on a videoconference platform, such as FaceTime or Google Hangout, is almost as good as shooting the breeze across the dinner table. Even if grandparents don’t have the same comfort-level with using technology, it is important for them to see their grandchildren in regular video meetings to bolster those relationships. (For most people, phone calls aren’t as effective.) But they can also consider a more old-fashioned mode of communication: letter-writing. Now may be an opportune time for grandparents to put their thoughts and feelings about their lives and families into words in a hand-written card or letter. The grandchildren will be shocked to receive it but cherish it.

If possible, begin moving toward a family reopening: If grandparents haven’t seen their grandchildren face-to-face, then they can introduce seeing them at a safe distance—for instance, watching them swimming from the far side of the pool. If they have been seeing them from afar, then they can move a little closer. It isn’t the same as a warm embrace or snuggling on a couch. But these are first steps that grandchildren will appreciate as signs of hope they are still cared for and normal interactions will one day resume.

Barry J. Jacobs, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist, family therapist and a Principal for Health Management Associates. He is the author of two self-books on family caregiving and a monthly column on family caregiving for AARP.org