Hope for estranged grandparentsWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
Coffee with friends used to be such wonderful fun. But not today. Today, for Jill, it was another round of faking fine.
First one friend gushed with news of a grandchild on the way. Then another friend gently bragged about the tricycle she and her husband had given their grandson – how he’d loved it so much, he’d refused to climb off! Suddenly it was all too much: Jill mumbled an excuse to leave and hurried to her car.
Jill has a new grandchild too. He was born four months ago . . . but Jill couldn’t bear to tell her friends that she had only learned about his birth yesterday.
Jill is emblematic of an enormous number of grandparents who’ve been ghosted – grandparents who have been ostracized by their adult child and forbidden access to their grandkids.
How is it possible that kind, loving grandparents like Jill can arrive in this painful, lonely place? Leaving aside serious issues like abuse, mental illness or addiction – all of which can cause deep divisions in families – there are some common themes that emerge in stories from grandparents who found themselves kicked to the curb:
- the grandparents, either knowingly or unknowingly, may have overstepped some important boundaries related to their role as grandparents
- or the grandparents have been unable to resolve a disagreement or improve a prickly relationship with their adult child or adult child’s spouse
- or divorce has created tension in the extended family – an adult child’s ex-spouse, for example, may be trying to erode their children’s ties to their ex’s family; or where the grandparents have divorced, their adult child may resent the breakup or does not trust their parent’s new partner, and so withholds the grandchildren.
Sadly, many rejected grandparents are never given a clear explanation for their banishment. They don’t know exactly what they did wrong, or how long they’ll be banned from contact with their precious grandchildren. Will it be months? A year? Several years?
While they wait, bereft grandparents struggle with depression, low self-esteem and isolation; their deep sense of shame and humiliation at being deemed “so monstrously awful” that they could be rejected by their own child makes it difficult to disclose their heartbreak to others.
In truth though, it’s not unusual for today’s grandparents to be barred from their grandchildren for relatively minor offenses. And it’s not just the grandparents, but the grandchildren too, who pay a huge price. In his book, Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict, secular psychologist Joshua Coleman writes:
“For a generation obsessed with closely hewing to theories on attachment between themselves and their children, it is remarkable how many seem to disregard the profound attachment that their children have to their grandparents.”
If you are a grandparent who, like Jill, has been alienated from your adult child and your grandkids, it’s important to remember that this is not the end of your story with your family. There is always hope for reconciliation. And even if your letters and gifts to your grandkids are being returned to you unopened, you are still in a position to give your grandkids and their parents the most important gift you could ever offer them . . . and it’s the gift that is most likely to win them back.
Give the gift of your unconditional love
Although your grandkids’ parents have caused you immense pain, your love and forgiveness and constant prayers are the only reliable tools you have to build a bridge back to your grandchildren and their parents. Any anger, resentment or recrimination that your child and child-in-law sense from you could reinforce their conviction that they were right to keep you at a distance.
You must choose to work hard at showing love to them. Be loving, generous and complimentary not just in your words to your grandkids’ parents, but in how you think about them (Proverbs 23:7). It’s that choice to love that makes it possible for you to even see the good in the parents right now. As part of that, resist the temptation to rehearse your woes with your other adult children. Be only loving, generous and complimentary in what you say about the withholding parents to your other grown children too. You can be sure the withholding parents will learn about your attitude through the grapevine and will judge whether you are “being reasonable” or not, from their point of view.
Perhaps it will help you to understand some of the dynamics that are frequently at play in these situations.
Often, when grandparents have been shut out, there is one powerful personality in the mix who has insisted on the estrangement. They have proven that they have considerable control over their spouse – by getting them to agree to such an extreme position – and they are now, in effect, the gatekeeper to your grandchildren. (In grandparent estrangements, this person is most likely to be the daughter-in-law.)
From your perspective, this person may appear self-absorbed and lacking compassion. Consider also, however, that this kind of controlling behaviour can often stem from some degree of misery: from mild or severe mental illness, or deep-seated insecurity, or inadequate conflict resolution skills that lead to a pattern of broken relationships. Insecurity over their parenting skills, jealousy of a child’s love for the grandparents, or even jealousy of their spouse’s love for his or her parents can all trigger a desire to alienate grandparents. All in all, it may not be about you personally. This person may already be primed to reject a grandparent figure, no matter who that person happens to be.
For reconciliation to occur, and eventual reunion with your grandchildren, the gatekeeper to your children needs you to teach them that they do not need to fear you. And they need you to teach them that you can love them despite all that has transpired – that you will always offer a fresh start. In all their life, they may never have encountered healing love like this.
What about the other parent in the equation? If that’s your biological son or daughter – not the child- in-law – it’s natural to feel betrayed and abandoned by them. Perhaps you’re wondering, Why aren't they fighting harder for our access to the grandkids? Why aren't they challenging the exaggerations and outright lies about us? Truth be told, they are almost certainly feeling distressed by the situation. It’s unusual – even for a grown child who has distanced themselves from their parents – to be unconcerned about their parents. The reality, however, is that they have a stronger allegiance to their spouse than to you. And the risks and repercussions for them, in going up against a forceful spouse, could be significant and painful. You cannot know how much stress they are already experiencing in their marriage. For now, they may be simply trying to keep the peace on all fronts, to stop a difficult marriage from becoming even more unpleasant. This parent needs your loving understanding; they need to feel that you are an ally, rather than yet another burden they just can’t cope with at present.
Show your never-giving-up love in your actions
Maybe you’ve already been reaching out in every way you know how, hoping to restore your relationship, but have had no success. Unfortunately, there is no reliable predictor of how long it will take before you get a positive response. But don't let a lack of results discourage you: you should not stop reaching out through cards, notes and emails.
If you haven’t already done so, take time as soon as you can to write a letter of amends to the parents. Show humility, take responsibility and apologize for any hurt or difficulty they feel you have caused; let them know of your readiness to do better in the future. Do not try to defend or justify actions, on your part, that led to the rift. Try to see things from the parents’ point of view; though your role in causing the division may seem small to you, the parents may see your missteps as much more significant.
If your letter of amends receives no response, don’t be deterred. Follow up with a different version of the same letter in a few weeks. In the meantime, just as you are sending notes and cards (and possibly gifts for birthdays too) to your grandchildren, keep in touch with the parents too by sending them a note or text every now and then.
Keep your notes brief and light-hearted, and not demanding or accusing in any way. Show that you are in an emotionally healthy place. Messages like “I’m thinking of you today . . .” or “I thought you might be interested in this . . .” are appropriate. For variety, you could include favourite recipes, news about extended family, or just a few sentences about what you are up to. Keep it up, even if you hear nothing back. These little messages may seem insubstantial, but they are sending a very important implied message: We’re not giving up on you, we still love you, we still want to reconnect. (On the other hand, if you receive word that you are not to contact the family, wait at least six months before trying again.)
Remember that you and your spouse may not be the only ones hoping for reconciliation in the future. Every loving message you send is an opportunity for one of the parents to turn to their spouse and say, “Let’s give them another chance.”
Prepare future gifts of love for your grandchildren
For sure, one of the most agonizing things about estrangement is that there is no definite end date in sight. You can never know when your grandkids’ parents will respond, wanting to pick up your relationship again as if nothing had ever happened.
You can be almost certain, however, that one day your grandchildren will seek you out, wanting to know whether you were thinking about them when you were apart.
You can love on your grandchildren right now by assembling an important future gift that will help bring them some healing in all this too – a gift that proves that you’ve been loving them all along, and that you did all you could to win them back. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to show them, too, that you’ve been a living example of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7: that you’ve been patient, kind in the things you said about the situation, not resentful but always hopeful and persevering? It’s important for your grandchildren to know this truth about you, since they may have been told exaggerations or even outright lies about you to justify the estrangement.
To this end, here are some ideas for what to include in your reunification gift to each grandchild:
- a copy or picture of every letter, note and card you’ve sent them
- photographs of gifts you’ve sent, if you suspect their gifts may have been withheld; or in lieu of gifts, you might choose to make deposits into a bank account for your grandchild
- a month-by-month journal for each child, recording what you’ve been praying for them, your thoughts about them, and notes about important events in your life and in the life of your extended family.
Optionally, you might also wish to include:
- a charm bracelet, with new charms you’ve been adding over time to represent new milestones and new things you’ve been praying for your granddaughter
- if a specific hobby is important to you, you could put together a starter kit for each grandchild
- photos and stories about their parents’ childhood – particularly where there is a death or acrimonious divorce, grandchildren can lose this important part of their history
- a collection of your favourite recipes
- notes on any family medical history that might be relevant.
During this difficult season, it’s important that you try not to rehearse your hurts, but instead practice good self care. Each day, try to limit the time that you think about this issue to no more than 30 minutes. Draw even closer to the Lord, remembering that these events are not a surprise to him, and he continues to love you more than you could ever imagine. You have much to offer to others, so don’t isolate yourself. Keep investing in your friendships and in activities that bring you a sense of well-being.
“Research has affirmed the long-known biblical truth that serving others can lift our mood even when we are experiencing mild depression or loss,” says Focus on the Family Canada counsellor Jennifer Antonsen. “If you are grieving the presence and energy of your grandchildren, consider how you can meet this felt need in other ways. Volunteering in the church nursery or Sunday school, or babysitting for moms in your church may be a way to bless others while also caring for your own mental wellness.”
If you dare to open up to others, you may discover what many have already learned: that grandparent estrangement is distressingly common. You are not alone in this.
If you would like personal help with your specific situation, we have professional in-house counsellors who would be happy to talk with you. To arrange a free, one-time phone consultation, call our office at 1.800.661.9800 and ask to speak to our care associate, who will arrange a telephone appointment for you.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2022 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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