How to Repair a Distant Grandparent-Grandchild Relationship

You wanted to be a hands-on grandparent, but things have worked out very differently. Here's how to fix it.

By Kristen Sturt

You had every intention of jumping in with both feet. The minute that baby was born, you wanted to see her, hold her, and be around for every milestone, major and minor.

Instead, her parents—your child and his spouse—have relegated you to a sometime visitor. You get together on holidays and birthdays, but you’re not part of your grandchild’s everyday life. You receive an occasional update or maybe even a photo, and that’s about it.

Carol R. knows the deal. The New Jersey native is grandmother to a two-year-old girl she rarely sees. "They’re very good parents to her," she says of her son and daughter-in-law. "There’s no problem there. I just wish I felt a little more warm, fuzzy feeling with all of them." She cites the lack of communication as her biggest issue. "I would love to get pictures once in a while. I would love to have an email or voicemail returned to me. It could be days. It could never be responded to [at all]."

Carol’s situation isn’t uncommon. One of the biggest complaints we hear at Grandparents.com is that the cozy expectations of grandparenthood frequently don’t match up to the distant reality. Some GPs complain bitterly about the perceived coldness and lack of contact. Others, like Carol, have learned to live. "I’m just accepting it for what it is, because I’ve beaten myself up over it," she says. "It’s just different. It’s not wrong. It’s just not my way."

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be a struggle. Whether you’re a new nana or a veteran grandpa, you can improve your state of mind and bridge the distance to your grandchildren by taking two important steps.

Step #1: Adjust Your Expectations

"A grandparent has all these fantasies about how they’re going to be as a grandmother," says Deanna Brann, Ph.D. the author of Reluctantly Related—Secrets to Getting Along With Your Mother-In-Law or Daughter-In-Law. "They have their own concept and idea of how they’re going to be involved in the child’s lives." When parents fail to indulge that vision, either because they can’t or don’t want to, tension inevitably occurs.

The key, then, is creating a grandparent-grandchild relationship that everyone can live with. Instead of grandparenting on your own terms, ask parents how they see your role. "Do it in the form of a question so it shows respect for the parents,” suggests Dr. Brann. "Say, 'Would you ever consider having me babysit if you want to go out to dinner?'" An informal approach is important. "Do it over dinner when you’re chatting and you’re talking and it’s much more casual. You don’t want it to be intense." Respecting parents’ wishes goes a long way towards creating trust and warmth.

For new grandparents, it’s especially important to keep expectations in check during the first few months of a grandbaby’s life. "The parents are going to be very overwhelmed and self-absorbed," says Dr. Brann. "Give it a few weeks so they have the chance to adjust." If you must be involved, do so in a strictly supportive manner. "Offer to come to the home and help. This isn’t about you coming to take care of the baby. This is about you doing the laundry, the housework, the grocery shopping, so [mom] can take care of the baby." You'll ingratiate yourself to the new parents, and most likely nab some time with the newborn, either way. "It’s a win-win for everybody."

Step #2: Improve Your Relationship With Mom

While Dad plays a role, more often than not, the gatekeeper of the grandparent-grandchild relationship is Mom. "If you don’t get along with her, it does impact your ability to see your grandkids," says Dr. Brann. Consequently, it pays to endear yourself, even if you think she’s in the wrong: "Sometimes, certain daughters-in-law are so off they’re not even willing to give you a chance, but it’s not that common, even though some mothers-in-law think it is. You need to try."

The best way to warm your MIL-DIL relationship? Show interest in her as a person, and not just as the mother of your grandchild. "Call to find out what’s going on with her, and don’t talk about the baby. Be interested in her, and what her day is like," recommends Dr. Brann. Even if you are tremendously different people, "find one thing and focus and build the relationship on that." Writing a letter of appreciation is another helpful tactic. Express your admiration and tell her what she means to you, without asking for anything in return.

Don’t forget: Turnabout is fair play. In addition to engaging your daughter or daughter-in-law more, you should examine your own behavior, "because there’s probably something you’re doing that she’s reacting to." Perhaps she’s misinterpreting your baby advice as disapproval of her parenting, or thinks your cleaning offer means you believe she’s a poor housekeeper. When you pinpoint a possible trigger, quietly change your ways. "The reason is, when you change your behavior, they can’t respond the same way. It just doesn’t fit," says Dr. Brann. It’s a confrontation-free way of improving relations. "It’s more subtle, it’s non-threatening, and it’s just easier for both people."

What Not to Do

If you want to reduce emotional distance, it’s crucial to avoid certain negative behaviors, the biggest of which is playing victim. "It’s easy to be the victim, but you really have to get yourself out of that victim perspective, because it will not help you," says Dr. Brann, who believes that empowerment is key. "Changing your behavior is about empowering yourself."

Another classic error: raising a ruckus when you’re not getting the relationship you want. "The way we do it is usually wrong and we end up creating a bigger mess," says Dr. Brann. Though it’s not suggested, if you feel you absolutely must air your feelings to your daughter or daughter-in-law, do so calmly and non-judgmentally: "You have to be very careful, and you have to be willing to not get defensive, rationalize, or explain—just listen to her perspective."

Finally, never, ever give up. "MILs give up too soon and throw up their hands in the air," says Dr. Brann. "Always keep trying. You might just have to try different things." Because when it comes to your grandchildren, communication is a lifelong effort.

Comments

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BRIANDONALD334@GMAIL.COM on 2017-11-10 07:33:39

Excellent article!

1. Adjust your expectations!
Here's the thing, the grandchild is NOT your kid so you don't get to expect anything. You had your chance to raise children, now let the parents have their turn the way they want!!

2. Work with mom.
I guarantee you that if you criticize mom's parenting, meddle in her marriage, offer "helpful" and unwanted advice, gossip about the grandchild's mother--you will be that distant grandparent!

Don't like that you need to "behave" and act like a decent human being to get access to grandchild?

I suggest finding other opportunities to be with children like volunteering.

Olivegirl on 2016-08-02 14:40:10

I think the best advice came from Carol, "I’m just accepting it for what it is, because I’ve beaten myself up over it". Exactly! Live YOUR life. Don't try to live vicariously through theirs. The flip side of the issue is that there are perks to the 'part time visitor' status. #1 being you can leave when the going gets rough.

SylviaM on 2016-04-14 13:08:47

Love this article, for the most part! I think it gets right to the crux of where things sometimes go wrong between parents and grandparents and offers some excellent ideas on how to make them right.

I'm a little concerned about that last directive to "never give up" though. I can see where even the wisest of people might interpret it as saying "GPs, never give up on getting things the way you want!" But I don't think it means that. After all, the article also advises us GPs to "adjust (our) expectations," etc. So I'm reading that last suggestion as, "GPs, never give up on having a better relationship with your son/daughter and family, even if it's not exactly as you hoped."

I'm also a little concerned about the statement that where GC are concerned, "communication is a lifelong effort." No doubt, that's true. But there comes a point, I think, when we GPs need to stop "communicating"/expressing our own wishes/feelings, etc. and just listen to the parents and accept what they say. If they're firm about not wanting us to give their kids candy, for example, I think we just have to forego that, even if it's a pleasure for us. If they can't work us into their schedule more than, say, once a month, then I think we have to make the most of that, instead of looking for more. Knowing when to back off, accept and enjoy is a "lifelong effort," too, I believe. (Hopefully, both kinds of efforts become easier over time.0

RoseRed135 on 2016-04-14 08:01:52

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