Dr. Bob: For the past few years, my wife and I have been kept from seeing our grandchildren, even not allowing us to take them out to lunch. The parents are depriving us of precious time with them. What can we do to reverse this behavior?
Answer: Family discord is always a difficult problem. Obviously, I do not know the circumstances that led to this unfortunate arrangement. The possible scenarios are too numerous to even speculate. My job here is not to take sides but to recommend solutions going forth.
Children can receive great value from their grandparents—their love, their expertise, their attention. Memories with grandparents can be legend and, indeed, be carried from generation to generation. But if past issues or significant disagreements between the parents and the grandparents have happened, these interactions are hampered. Now, reasonable interventions are necessary. The most reasonable first step involves having calm and frank discussions between the parents and the grandparents, preferably without the involvement of the children. These discussions might be strained, but without them, the problems will linger, and ill feelings will intensify. Lingering problems and intensifying ill feelings only serve to affect all in a negative way. The children might sense the tensions and feel that they are the cause. That is the last thing that everyone wants.
Grandparents should realize that their children are the primary parents and “in charge” of the grandchildren yet they also know that their years of experience can be of benefit. Just like they cherished their own children, grandparents also cherish the joys of being a grandparent and seeing how their children’s children will enjoy life and prosper. Many families rely heavily on grandparents, and most grandparents relish the opportunity to be of assistance.
Parents might have their own way of pursing their parenting journey. That way might involve many elements from their own childhood or some elements that are different or at odds with their childhood experience. Most likely, there is a combination of both. These discrepancies can certainly be the source of frustration for both parents and grandparents as they perceive the discrepancies to widen over time.
So, enough background. My suggestions are four-fold: 1) Be sure to keep open the lines of communication. Be ready to have the calm and frank discussions necessary without acrimony; 2) Be sure that the children are not used as wedges in any disputes. Involving children will likely lead to an erosion of trust. Relationships are only nurtured when trust is established; 3) Reconsider the origin of the dispute and be willing to revisit any concerns anew. This is very difficult at times. Any time multiple parties are involved, communication can be strained. A critical element in this process will be the practice of forgiveness. Some might need to forgive themselves first, some might need to extend forgiveness, and some might need to accept forgiveness. Without forgiveness, I suspect that this process will not advance favorably; 4) Professional family counseling should certainly be considered. Even if steps 1-3 above are effective, such counseling can certainly expedite the process and start the ongoing process of healing and reconciliation that is necessary. It is never a sign of weakness to engage in professional counseling. Indeed, the counselor can oftentimes enhance a process that will need a lot of assistance.
All parties should try to be open and willing to try to move forward. It will be hard but so worthwhile when and if the differences can be resolved.
Dr. Saul is Professor of Pediatrics (Emeritus) at Prisma Health and his website is mychildrenschildren.com. Contact Dr. Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org