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Maintaining A Relationship With Grandkids Amid Estrangement

For grandparents, respecting boundaries is key if relationships with parents are poor


Being a grandparent often means passing along traditions, making memories and building family bonds. But this isn’t the reality for many families, especially those affected by estrangement.

It’s difficult to say exactly how many parents are estranged from their adult children, but experts agree that when grandchildren are involved, the situation grows even more complex.

“It’s far more common than most people realize,” said Tina Gilbertson, a Denver-based psychotherapist and author of Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children.

“While it’s hard knowing your grandchildren are growing up without knowing you, the best use of your time is to strengthen your bond with their parents,” Gilbertson said. “Being the older person, you have a lot of power to influence the tone of that relationship. But you may need to be strategic, rather than emotional, about mending fences.”

Respecting rules and boundaries “creates goodwill between the parents and grandparents.”

But if you can’t repair the relationship with their parents, it still may be possible to build and maintain relationships with your grandchild, despite the estrangement. Experts say it will just take time, emotional intelligence, respecting boundaries and setting realistic expectations.

Keep Emotions and Expectations in Check

For a grandparent-grandchild relationship to survive an estrangement, everyone involved must display emotional intelligence, which refers to how we recognize and handle our own emotions and respond to others’ emotions, said Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, Calif., and author of Aging Joyfully.

Emotional intelligence means putting differences aside, agreeing to disagree and swallowing pride for the benefit of the child and the grandchild-grandparent relationship.

Manly acknowledges that emotional intelligence isn’t always easy, saying, “It takes quite a lot of inner strength to get there.”

Gilbertson urges grandparents to be “introspective” and have a “growth mindset” to build authentic relationships with grandchildren through estrangement — and to avoid placing too many expectations on the situation.

“Expecting your child to accept you based solely on your status as their children’s grandparent doesn’t usually work,” she said. “As long as your emotions are clouding your behavior, you may not be as strategic as you need to be.”

Letting emotions get in the way could lead to missed opportunities to see the grandchildren, Gilbertson said.

It’s Up to Parents to Allow the Relationship

Grandparents will likely need to approach the child’s parents about building or maintaining the grandchild relationship. Manly said parents ultimately decide what that relationship will be like.

However, in families with a history of abuse, drug or alcohol addiction, or other reasons for a parent to worry that the child would be in danger when around the grandparent, a relationship probably isn’t possible, she said.

Karen Forsthoff, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Francisco, said any grandchild interaction surrounded by estrangement should be child-led and focused on “developmentally appropriate” activities, which vary depending on the child and family situation.

“Keep it safe; keep it simple,” Forsthoff said. “And don’t expect too much in regard to affection being shown, especially depending on the age and time limit when you’re going to be able to see that child.”

Age-Appropriate Suggestions for Estranged Families

The age of the child will dictate how to build the relationship:

Children under 8. For babies, toddlers and the youngest children, grandparent interaction will likely occur with the parents around. Manly suggests grandparents avoid commenting on a grandchild’s sleep or eating patterns, or anything that seems to question the parenting. Focus, instead, on generalities, like a child’s toys or outfit. Grandparents could try to take the child, once a little older, to the park on a set schedule, for example, to build familiarity.

9- to 13-year-olds. The older a child gets, the less receptive the child may be to building a relationship with a grandparent, especially if a foundation wasn’t set early on, Manly said. In this age group, grandparents could attend the child’s sports events or school activities, when possible, and try to build a friendship by going out together to get ice cream afterwards, for example.

Teenagers. Grandparents shouldn’t try to force relationships with teenage grandkids, Manly said. Simply be present, take an interest in the teen’s interests and attend activities when the child is participating.

General Guidelines for Grandparents in Estranged Families

Don’t buy the child’s affections. At any age, Manly warns against indulging the grandchildren too much by buying them things or spoiling them in other ways that go against their parents’ rules. This may heighten tensions with the parents and develop inauthentic relationships.

Never bad-mouth the parents. As kids get older, they will likely sense the estranged relationship between their parents and grandparents. Gilbertson stresses that grandparents should never talk badly of the grandkid’s parents, complain about the relationship or ask the child to be a go-between.

But Forsthoff urges grandparents and parents to agree on how to discuss the estranged relationship in case the child asks questions. The explanation should be truthful and age-appropriate — for example, everyone makes mistakes sometimes and people don’t get along all the time.

Communicate in any way possible. Forsthoff suggests grandparents stay in contact with grandchildren however they can, whether by text, phone calls, in person or by writing letters. If communication is completely cut off, she urges grandparents to write letters to their grandchildren and save them to deliver once the grandchild grows up.

Keep interactions positive. Manly encourages positivity in all interactions with grandchildren and their parents, even when hurt feelings exist. That means avoiding judgmental, sarcastic or passive-aggressive comments or actions.

Respecting Boundaries Can Make or Break Relationships

Since parents dictate how grandparent-grandchild relationships exist, it’s up to grandparents to respect any boundaries the parents set, such as bringing the child home on time, allowing or not allowing certain foods or talking about sensitive subjects.

A successful relationship depends on honoring boundaries, and not doing so can worsen the already estranged relationship and jeopardize access to the grandchildren, Manly said.

Grandparents may perceive parent’s rules as unfair or frustrating, Forsthoff said, but boundaries serve as an important reality check when navigating their family’s estrangement situation.

“Really understand what it is to have compassion for yourself and to accept the reality of the situation as it is, not as we wish it would be or hoped it would be, but to really sit with that,” she said.

Respecting rules and boundaries “creates goodwill between the parents and grandparents,” Gilbertson said, and sometimes, grandparents have to do whatever it takes to bond with the grandchildren.

“That’s unfortunate for grandparents,” she said. “I have sympathy for grandparents in this situation, and it’s a lot more common than people realize. If this is you, please know that you’re not alone, and reach out for support wherever you can find it.”

By Erica Sweeney
Erica Sweeney is a freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade.com and more. Follow her on Twitter @ericapsweeney and visit her website.  

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