Last update on July 25, 2019

Building and maintaining relationships with grandchildren can be difficult when they live abroad. But there are a number of ways that becoming a grandparent abroad can still be rewarding and enriching.

As a parent, your primary role is to raise your children to be happy, healthy, responsible, and independent. It’s a lofty aim, but there’s no doubt that we all do the very best we can given the circumstances; few of us ever receive training, remuneration, sick leave, or holiday allowance for it. All parents, however, take a great deal of pleasure in watching their children  grow into adults. For some, success comes when there is irrefutable proof that a child is truly independent: their departure from the land of their birth to take up residence in another country, resulting in you becoming a grandparent while your grandchild lives abroad. It can certainly be a sad time for parents when their child flies the nest, but equally it can be a happy one as well; they’re proving they have developed drive, ambition, and the confidence to carry them through.

At first, all is fine for the parents left behind. The new-found slower pace, quiet, and freedom to do what we choose without concern for the children is a pleasurable feeling. Your adult children do their best to keep in touch by telephone and e-mail. It’s great, too, when the son or daughter lives in a desirable holiday location and the parents can visit; imagine seeing the world’s great cities while visiting your children abroad.

Keeping in touch with your children

However, when the once-child finally marches fully into adulthood by becoming a parent in their own right, it gives rise to some worrying questions for the overseas grandparents-to-be. Before I explore those we need to talk about the scary t-word: technology.

Technology can help you feel just a little bit closer to your grandchildren

There are technology natives, those who have grown up with new technology and are comfortable with it. On the other hand, there are technology immigrants, those too old to have experienced advanced technology in childhood. For technology immigrants, new technology is initially a mystery; it can be intimidating, but becoming a grandparent in a different country from your children requires at least a basic level of understanding.

If you can master e-mail, you can write to your children and grandchildren and have your message arrive in seconds. With a digital camera or smartphone, you can send and receive photos almost as quickly. There are online chat apps where you can have real-time typed conversations with your offspring. Some struggle with this, though, because they type much more slowly than their children. Internet calling (via Skype, for example) is a cost-effective replacement for phone calls of old; if your children moved away, suggest that they get a virtual phone number in your area code so you can make phone calls to them as if they were still in the same city. Best of all are video calls from a computer, smartphone, or tablet because then we can see each other. There are many apps available for almost any Internet-connected device, including FaceTime, Google Duo, Skype, WeChat, and WhatsApp.

Supporting your child through the birth of their baby

The best tip when becoming a grandparent abroad is to be available. Be there, either on the telephone or computer, to listen to anything that your child wants to tell you. As always, try to read between the lines if you are not told anything; they might be having troubles expressing their concerns about childbirth, especially if it’s their first child.

Don’t try to fix any concerns or difficulties they may have; just listen and try to guide them into their own train of problem-solving thinking. Be tactful when sharing your own experiences or giving advice. Expectant first-time parents need reassurance, not horror stories; they can usually find plenty of things to worry about by themselves.

Never criticize: they are adults now and should be respected as such. If you’re able to visit your child during this phase, see if there’s anything you can do to help out as it takes time and energy to entertain guests that expectant parents often don’t have. Also, don’t expect to be present at the birth unless you are specifically requested to be there.

When the baby arrives: becoming a grandparent abroad

If you can visit, that’s great, but be wary of overwhelming the new parents. It’s probably best not to stay with your child while visiting them shortly after birth; stay somewhere in the neighborhood rather than risk adding to the stress of new parenthood. Visit every day and do everything you can to help: soothe the baby, reassure the parents, do a load of laundry, pick up groceries, or cook a family favorite for dinner. At the same time, know when to leave the new family alone so they can spend some quiet time getting to know each other.

Becoming a grandparent from abroad makes the few visits with the grandchildren that more special

If you’re unable to visit, explain to your child why it isn’t possible and ask how you can help. Do they need baby clothes or other items? Maybe they’re in need of a food hamper to minimize catering worries? Perhaps you could make something special and personal for your new grandchild? Or maybe they just need regular phone calls or e-mails for encouragement and advice? Regardless of where you live, becoming a grandparent is all about providing support for your new grandchild; when you offer to help, make sure it’s something you can commit to.

Establishing a bond with your new grandchild

This is much easier if you can visit, as it will be hard for the new family to travel at first. When a visit isn’t viable, things are more difficult. If you’re becoming a grandparent from a great distance, you’ll have to be content with sending a homemade card or baby clothes at the beginning. During Christmastime, send your grandchildren gifts that reflect your personality; make them feel as though you’re spending the special day with them in-person (or as close as possible, anyway).

Even if you haven’t held your new grandchild, you’ll probably have at least seen them through video calling. At the very least, you’ll be able to see them and talk to them; it’s not the ideal situation, but it’s better than no contact at all. In the meantime, prepare for their eventual visit to see you with the new bundle of joy. Prepare something handmade and special (a crochet blanket, for instance) that will be useful and sentimental for the family once they’ve returned home. The hope is that when your grandchild is older, the things you’ve sent will help to provide them with a tangible link to you that they can cling to. Each family situation is different, so think about what might work for you.

Maintaining a bond with your grandchildren abroad

One way is to work out a plan with your child. Agree on how visits can be managed and make these as frequent as you both can manage. In between visits, arrange scheduled video calls about once a week when you and your little grandchild and can see each other. When they’re smaller, you can still play little visual games such as peek-a-boo or sing to them. Maybe you could have some fun role-play games, too; for example, you could place a random object on your head, say that you have a lovely new hat, and then sneeze and look very surprised when the hat falls off. You can also read stories of their choice, holding the book towards the camera so that they can see the pictures while hearing your voice.

Living far away from your grandchildren means you'll have to use different ways to stay involved in their lives

In addition, there are also photographs. With a smartphone and a computer, it’s amazing what can be done. You could consider buying a plastic photo wall hanger into which you slot photos of your grandchild and their relatives; a simple and easy to update token to make you feel closer to your grandchildren. For the grandchildren, buy a small keyring with laminated photos of close relatives who are geographically distant. Include names and relationships with the photos so that your grandchildren are able to remember how everyone is related to them. Another way to use photos is to turn them into a book or video about what happened on a special day, a visit, or a holiday. Children love to look through books about themselves and remember what happened and who was there.

Handling separation anxiety with your grandchildren

The one thing that there isn’t any useful advice for? The pain of parting from your overseas grandchild at the end of a visit. One of the worst feelings is walking away at the end of a visit knowing that you cannot properly prepare your grandchild for the fact that if they call for you upon waking the next day, you will not be there. Neither can you resign yourself to the knowledge that, however exhausting it can be being a grandparent at close quarters, the expectant little face will not be there tomorrow to encourage you to kickstart another fun-filled day.

Nevertheless, the joy of becoming a grandparent outweighs all of this, even for the overseas grandparent. All in all, it is most definitely to be recommended!