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Grandparents' Visitation Rights

Divorce, family misunderstandings strain loving relationships with grandchildren

What is happening to American families? It used to be unusual to hear about families that were splintered, keeping grandparents and grandchildren separated. Now it is the most common challenge, from what grandparents tell me. These grandparents are in every state and at every socioeconomic level, and each of their situations is unique. But they have one thing in common: They are heartbroken to be kept away from their grandchildren.

"They withhold my grandkids, which is one of the most painful things I have experienced."

Families develop strained relationships for many reasons. Some parents and grandparents have sudden disagreements and make snap decisions to "withhold" visits with grandchildren. I've heard from grandparents who were stunned and confused when, after expressing an opinion different from their grandchildren’s parents on something they thought was a minor issue, they got an unexpectedly negative reaction. The next thing the grandparents knew, they were not allowed to see the children. Often the grandparents are not sure what they should have done differently, and the lines of communication are simply cut off from the other end.

One young mother asked me, "If my daughter's grandmother doesn't agree with my decisions as a parent, should she be allowed to see her grandchild?" She was considering using her daughter as a means to punish the grandmother for disagreeing with her. In that situation, who’s really punished? A child deserves to have as many loving adults in her life as possible. Children are not pawns, and neither grandparents nor parents should use them as such.

"My son and his wife divorced, and she will not let me see my grandson. Is this healthy for him? I was very close to my grandson."

Some families have long-term communication problems or control and boundary issues. In some cases, there may be substance abuse or other chronic problems among the generations. Quite often, there has been a change in the family, such as divorce or a relationship breakup, or the death of a parent. Most often, I hear from paternal grandparents who cannot see their grandchildren because their current or ex-daughter-in-law does not want them to. Unfortunately, when parents break up, often the extended family gets shut out as well.

"I raised my granddaughter the first four years of her life. She is now seven, and her mom won't let me see her or call. I'm afraid she (my granddaughter) will feel abandoned."

Some of the most striking cases are situations where grandparents have actually raised their grandchildren for years, and then suddenly, the parent reenters the picture, takes the grandchildren away, and won't allow the children to see their grandparents. When children have bonded with a grandparent as their sole care provider, the sudden and/or prolonged separation from the adult they depended upon can cause irreparable damage. Unfortunately, too often, the effect on grandchildren who can't see their grandparents is not taken into account. It seems to be all about the relationship between the parent and the grandparent—and the child is caught in the middle.

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