Conflicts That Can Lead to Grandparent Estrangement

Grandmother lovingly embracing and holding teenage granddaughter

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When grandparents are unfairly denied contact with their grandchildren, it can be heartbreaking for the grandparents and grandchildren alike. Although suing for visitation rights is a possibility, the most productive approach is resolving family disputes before estrangement is on the table.

Family members have a responsibility to navigate disputes and disagreements before they become an issue. Here is an overview of the most common disputes among parents and grandparents that can lead to withholding contact with grandchildren.

Deal-Breaking Behavior

Sometimes parents are right to deny grandparents contact with grandchildren. Individuals who are sex offenders, alcoholics, or substance abusers seldom clean up their acts just because they become grandparents. Consequently, parents are justified in not wanting their children around these challenging grandparents.

Parents also are justified in denying contact to grandparents who disregard the parents' rules about safety. For instance, grandparents who transport grandchildren without using the proper car safety restraints, have a history or accidents, or do not drive safely should not be allowed to drive grandchildren anywhere. The same goes for any other safety rule established by the parents, whether the grandparents agree with it or not. If the infringement is not too great, parents might consider allowing the grandparents to see the grandchildren, but only under controlled conditions.

Other actions by grandparents that can easily trigger a family dispute include the following:

  • Undermining parental authority, encouraging children to disobey parents, or forgetting how hard parenting can be
  • Speaking ill of family members, such as parents, stepparents, or other grandparents
  • Refusing to follow parents' rules for kids in regard to diet, television, bedtimes, and so on
  • Giving grandchildren gifts that parents would not approve of
  • Pressuring parents for more contact, such as overnight visits, when parents are reluctant

Families should be able to resolve less serious matters without cutting off contact between grandparents and grandchildren, but the best bet is to discuss boundaries and behavior and talk about issues as soon as they crop up.

Threats to Normal Access

Barring grandparent misconduct, the expectation of the law is that grandparents have access to their grandchildren through the parent who is their child. This is expected to be true both in intact families and in cases where the child's parents are no longer together.

Sometimes, however, the parent who serves as the grandparent's portal to grandchildren also loses contact with the children. This situation can occur for a number of reasons, the most devastating, of course, being the death of the parent. Other complicating situations include:

  • The parents are unmarried and the father has not secured his parental rights.
  • A parent has given up his or her parental rights.
  • The parent is incarcerated.
  • The parent is barred from seeing the child due to substance abuse, a sexual offense, domestic violence, or something similar.
  • The parent with custody moves a long distance away from the grandparents.
  • The parent who would normally supply access to the grandchildren moves a long distance away.

Another common situation that causes grandparents to be cut off from their grandchildren occurs when the parents struggle with addiction. Naturally, parents who misuse drugs or alcohol and deal with addiction often want to keep their habits secret. If the grandparents catch on to what is happening, or the parents' addiction becomes so severe that it is hard to hide, the parents may break contact with the grandparents. The primary motivation is to keep their addiction from being exposed. Such family ruptures can be very ugly and can put grandparents in the unenviable position of suing for visitation rights.

Generational Disputes

There are other, less serious conflicts that also can lead to family estrangement. In fact, according to psychologist Marsha L. Shelov, three common circumstances that spark disputes between parents and grandparents include:

These three issues can cause serious family disputes. But, they also can be alleviated if the grandparents are extra conciliatory and accommodating. As difficult as that can be, especially for grandparents who believe that they are right, giving a little is infinitely preferable to losing contact with grandchildren. If the family conflict is especially bitter or involves unresolved issues, family counseling can be helpful as well.

Financial Issues

Sometimes family disputes concern money. For instance, grandparents who contribute financially to their children sometimes threaten to cut off financial aid unless certain conditions are met. Ideally, however, grandparents who choose to give financial assistance should give it freely and refrain from using money as a means of control—or else they should reconsider the gift. The exception to this rule, of course, is when grandparents agree to pay for private school, college, special lessons, or coaching for their grandchildren. In these circumstances, they have a right to require that their contributions be used as designated.

On the other hand, parents also may use money as a means of control. For instance, they may threaten to withhold contact with the grandchildren unless financial demands are met. Additionally, parents who have received loans from grandparents may cut off contact to reduce the pressure of repaying the loans. Before making any monetary transactions, both parents and grandparents should consider what types of conflicts they may create down the road.

Personality Conflicts and Mental Disorders

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for both parents and grandparents to sometimes describe the other parties as mentally ill. Common charges are that the other party is a compulsive liar or has a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or narcissistic personality disorder.

Sometimes the individuals in question have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and sometimes someone is playing amateur psychiatrist. If a parent or grandparent is truly mentally ill, every effort should be made to obtain help. On the other hand, leveling such charges against someone just because of a disagreement is both slanderous and counter-productive. It is much better to concentrate on conflict resolution.

Breaching Boundaries

Another common reason why parents will restrict contact with the grandchildren is caused by grandparents who don't respect boundaries. This type of offense can take the form of violating physical boundaries, such as dropping in on family members and entering without knocking. It also could include trying to take over parental roles or trying to make decisions for the family like taking away the baby's pacifier.

Sometimes, the boundaries between parenting and grandparenting are blurred. This situation is often seen when young parents need help and grandparents assume parenting roles. Sometimes the grandparents even assume custody; but more commonly they simply provide child care and often financial assistance.

Then, when the parents decide to reclaim their parenting roles, grandparents sometimes have trouble relinquishing them. Often, the result is that grandparents who have been extremely close to their grandchildren are cut off from them because the parents are desperate to reclaim their parenting turf. Wise grandparents avoid such rifts by asking for patience as they make the transition. They also do what they can to help the parent resume their responsibilities while relishing the opportunity to enjoy their grandchildren as grandparents rather than bearing the many responsibilities of the parental role.

A Word From Verywell

The key to any healthy relationship is effective communication. Many family disagreements are the result of miscommunication and hurt feelings. Healing small disagreements and family rifts before they become full-blown breaks is the key to maintaining a positive relationship and maintaining contact with your grandchildren. Be the first to apologize and look for a compromise rather than trying to prove a point. By doing so, you will help ensure you have a regular presence in your grandchildren's lives and a peaceful relationship with their parents.

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