Conflicts That Can Lead to Grandparent Estrangement

Grandparents Must Handle Issues With Care

Family conflict can lead to grandparents being cut off from grandchildren.
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It's a tragedy for grandparents when they are unfairly denied contact with grandchildren. It can be heartbreaking for the grandchildren, too. Although suing for visitation rights is a possibility, avoiding such family disputes is far more desirable.

Deal-Breaking Behavior by Grandparents

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, and parents are justified in not wanting their children around them.

Parents are also justified in denying contact to grandparents who flout the parents' rules about safety. Grandparents who transport grandchildren without using the proper car safety restraints 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 or encouraging children to disobey parents
  • Speaking ill of other family members, such as parents, stepparents or other grandparents
  • Refusing to follow parents' rules for kids in regard to diet, TV fare, bedtimes and the like
  • 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 these less serious matters without cutting off contact between grandparents and grandchildren, but the best bet is to avoid such behavior in the first place.

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 parents are no longer together. Sometimes, however, the parent who serves as a grandparent's portal to grandchildren loses contact with them also. This 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, sexual offense 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.

The other common situation that causes grandparents to be cut off from their grandchildren is when the parents are substance abusers. Parents who are users naturally want to keep their habits secret. A typical pattern is that they initially use the grandparents as babysitters, allowing the parents the freedom to indulge their habits. If the grandparents catch on to what is going on, or the parents' addiction becomes so severe that it is hard to hide, the parents normally break with the grandparents, to negate the possibility of exposure. Such family ruptures can be very ugly indeed and can put grandparents in the unenviable position of suing for visitation rights.

Other Family Disputes

Other less serious conflicts can also lead to family estrangement. According to psychologist Marsha L. Shelov, three circumstances may spark disputes between parents and grandparents:

  • Parents and grandparents disagree over issues such as religion.
  • There are personality conflicts between the grandparents and a parent; mother-in-law/daughter-in-law conflicts are most common.
  • Old parent-child conflicts "flow down into the next generation."

These are issues that can cause serious family disputes but that can often be defused if the grandparents are extra conciliatory and accommodating. As difficult as that can be for grandparents who believe that they are in the right, having to give a little is infinitely preferable to giving up contact with grandchildren. Family counseling can be helpful in dealing with conflicts that are especially bitter, especially if they involve unresolved parent-child conflicts.

Some family disputes concern money. Grandparents who contribute financially to their children sometimes threaten to cut off financial aid unless certain conditions are met. Grandparents who choose to give financial assistance should give it freely and refrain from using money as a means of control. The exception to this rule, of course, is when grandparents agree to finance private school, college, or 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 may use contact with grandchildren in a similar way, by threatening to withhold contact unless financial demands are met. Parents who have received loans from grandparents may cut off contact to reduce the pressure to repay the loans. Any monetary transaction between the generations should be viewed with an eye to the conflicts that could be engendered.

Normal Personality Conflicts or Mental Disorders?

Both parents and grandparents who are involved in disputes sometimes describe the other parties as mentally disturbed. Common charges are that the other party is a compulsive liar, is bipolar or suffers from narcissistic personality disorder. Such charges are often seen in comments posted on the Internet from those involved in family disputes. Sometimes the individuals in question have been diagnosed with the disorder, and sometimes someone is playing amateur psychiatrist. If a parent or grandparent involved in a dispute 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 slanderous and can be counter-productive. It's much better to concentrate on conflict resolution.

Breaching Boundaries

A common problem between the generations 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. When the boundaries that are being breached are the boundaries between parenting and grandparenting, the breaches are more serious.

This situation is often seen when young parents need help and grandparents assume parenting roles. Sometimes the grandparents actually assume custody. More commonly they provide child care and often financial assistance. If the parents decide to reclaim their parenting rights, 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 by parents desperate to reclaim their parenting turf. Wise grandparents avoid such rifts by asking for the patience of the parents as they make the transition and by relishing the opportunity to enjoy their grandchildren as grandparents rather than bearing the many responsibilities of the parental role.