When grandparents have custody of the grandchildren – discipline and how the church can help



In the post, “What do I need to know when grandparents assume responsibility for their grandchildren?” I presented the many changes a grandparent must face when providing full-time care for a grandchild or grandchildren when the child’s parents are not able to provide care.

Now, I want to discuss the discipline issues many grandparents must face. It can be a daunting task to have to parent and discipline some of these children. Things have changed– you can’t discipline the second and or third generation like you did their parents. These children are facing many more issues and are more stressed than generations before them.

One of the biggest hurts a child has to deal with is that their birth parent can’t, or won’t, take care of them. If the birth parents neglected them, or were on a substance such as drugs or alcohol, the child often believes the parent didn’t love them enough to provide care or stop whatever they were doing.

Issues the grandchild may be facing

  • The child may be grieving the death of a parent
  • If abuse has occurred then there are trust issues
  • Children may have been exposed to anti-social behaviors
  • Children may not feel safe
  • Grandchildren have more exposure to the world now than ever before

Things to think about

In this context, grandparents must also address contemporary influences such as:

  • How to handle violent electronic games
  • What controls to place on internet usage
  • How to use the internet for homework. (Do grandparents know how to navigate the many websites)
  • Establishing boundaries for violent or suggestive music, TV, and movies?

The American Psychology Association in a report on “Violence in the Media – Psychologist Help Protect Children from Harmful Effects” says (I’m paraphrasing the report)

  • Children may become less sensitive to the pain of those around them.
  • Children may become more fearful of their world.
  • Children may act aggressively or harm to those around them.

If grandparents want to impact their grandchildren in a positive way, then they must address the violent games, TV shows, and the many other electronic influences bombarding the children in their care. That may mean that they have to recruit outside assistance to help them understand the depth of these issues in this generation– and how to deal with them.

Many grandchildren have emotional and behavioral challenges

Here are just a few of the issues a grandchild may have

  • Emotionally overwrought – emotionally many grandchildren shut down. They block out any emotions because they hurt so much. Carefully the grandparent will need to gently identify the child’s emotions and carefully allow the child to “feel” again.
  • Behavior problems such as ADD/ADHD, Autism Spectrum, etc. If the grandchild is in elementary school, grandparents should access the school counselor. They can ask for suggestions on how to find a child development specialist in the area. They can also determine if there is an IEP, or Individual Education Plan. Here is a great article that explains all about an IEP.
  • Attachment issues – perhaps the birth parent wasn’t there for the child as an infant and now the child has attachment issues. Maybe they don’t make eye contact; don’t want to be held and cuddled or reject any form of physical attention. For more information on attachment issues click here.
  • Constant power struggles – because everything has been out of control for this child, the one way they think they can gain control is to take their power back by arguing. The best way to help a child in this area is to empower them with choices. Make everything a choice (and I mean everything).
  • Toilet training – many children under stressful situations will relapse. Grandparents may have to step back and start toilet training from the beginning.

Discipline is relationship-specific. Grandpa and grandma will have to take time to develop a relationship with their grandchildren, especially if they haven’t had the opportunity to be around them a lot. This blog has many articles on discipline with one of the best ones being “Here is a zinger cheat sheet for single parents.

Step-grandparents face an additional challenge: they may not have as deep a relationship to the children because there is no a biological connection. They are in a tough position., and may find themselves in conflict with their spouse. Arguments may develop over issues like this:

  • “I didn’t marry you to have to take responsibility for your grandchildren”
  • “I raised my kids to be healthy adults. I don’t think it’s fair to raise your kid and their kids.”

It’s important to put aside issues like this for the sake of the children. The birth parent may be struggling with feelings that they failed as a parent, and such tension may create additional discord in the marriage.

In second marriages, where the step-grandparent has to assume the role of parent even more issues will arise. They do not have an understanding of how the child’s parent was raised. They don’t have a perspective on family heritage or history.

Single grandparents/second/blended family marriage issues

Many grandparents are single and have no support system in place. Following are things that they will need to think about:

  1. How will assuming responsibility for children affect their career and work schedule?
  2. If they are dating, they will have to determine if/how such a relationship meshes with parenting responsibilities
  3. Social life and church responsibilities will also be impacted

How a grandparent can survive the return to active parenting

It may seem overwhelming for grandparents to attempt to fill the parental void in the lives of these grandchildren. Remember, grandparents have assumed this role throughout history when needed.

Suggest to grandparents that they take each question and tip in this article to prayer. Encourage them to ask the Lord to give strength and energy to handle the daily task that they may be facing.

Most importantly, it’s important for grandparents to remember that they can make a significant impact in the life of these children. How do I know this? At one point I took in my fifteen-year-old great-nephew. The Lord and I made a difference in the life of this fifteen-year-old. And that is a story for another day.

What can your church do?[1]

  1. Provide respite care for grandparent especially if they are single grandparents.
  2. Check out your state’s service agencies and help families get assistance.
  3. If your church has access to legal aid or legal representatives, enlist their help.
  4. Provide parenting classes on parenting children with challenging behavior and emotional issues.
  5. Intercede in prayer for the entire family, grandparents, parents, and child
  6. Provide lay leadership to teach, mentor and love these children.
  7. Teach anyone in ministries about the legacy these children are going to have and how your church family can help avert or change the outcomes for the children in your church.
  8. Pray with the children. Pray for their comfort and the comfort and safety of the missing parent.
  9. If possible enroll the children in a DivorceCare for Kids group in your church or in a neighboring church. Click on the Find-a-Group to find a church in your area.
  10. Provide clothes and school supplies and or assist with furniture for bedrooms, etc.

If you are a grandparent parenting again, ask your church to provide some of the helpful tips above. Some churches and church leaders are clueless simply because they have never faced these issues before.


[1] Attract Families to Your Church and Keep Them Coming Back, Linda Ranson Jacobs, (Abingdon Press) “Ten Things Grandparents Parenting Again Need from the Church” page 72-73


This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on July8, 2015.

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2 thoughts on “When grandparents have custody of the grandchildren – discipline and how the church can help

  1. Our experience has taught us that getting the children back to their “normal” routine as soon as possible is comforting and helps alleviate some of the worry and fear. Open dialogue is helpful with older children. They need to understand what will be different at grandma and grandpa’s and what will remain the same. I cannotemphasize enough how important the church’s role should be in providing respite for the grandparents and a support group or information for those resources in their community. We have been so blessed by the support we have received from our church. Can’t even imagine where we would be without it.

    • Carol, thank you soooo much for posting from your personal experience. And thank you especially for reminding us about what an important role the church can play in these situations. Much appreciated.

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