There’s a lot of driving, Reed says, as the family meets up to swap cousins and keep Roman involved with extended family, including the boy’s father and paternal grandfather. But the adults in Roman’s life agree that all the relationships are important.
Reed considers himself just an ordinary granddad. “Roman probably wouldn’t understand what [step] meant,” he says. Reed’s advice for step-grandparents? “Well, the obvious, just treat the other kids the same way you treat your own.”
Of course, in all families, some things are easier said than done, and the relationship between grandparents and step-grandchildren can be affected by many variables, such as distance or personalities. Papernow says more research is needed on how stepfamilies operate, and clinicians need better training on how to help them navigate relationships. But if you’re a step-grandparent, there are some basics that experts and step-grandparents seem to agree on.
1. Discuss expectations.
Communication is what we use to create relationships, says Dawn O. Braithwaite, a professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and an expert in how families communicate. She has been studying stepfamilies for 25 years. “You have to get in there and, in a way, assess the situation and ask a lot of questions,” says Braithwaite, 66, who also happens to be a stepdaughter.
2. Go slowly.
“If you’re trying to prove yourself as a step-grandparent, it can be easy to just wade in really hard and fast,” says Papernow. Be aware, for example, if a biological grandmother feels threatened by you. The goal is to share grandchildren’s time and affection, not dominate it.
3. Be a “grandfriend.”
Stepparents are generally advised to begin by trying to be friends with stepchildren as opposed to immediately taking on a parenting role, says Braithwaite. Step-grandparents can do the same and look forward to their roles changing or deepening over the years. Papernow calls it “connection, not correction.”
4. Err on the side of generosity.
Encourage “familiness,” as Braithwaite calls it, when it comes to holidays, treats and gifts. Act in a way that promotes good family relations and avoid differentiating between biological grandkids and step-grandchildren. Again, communication is key; talk to parents about what might be appropriate, Braithwaite says.
5. Be a resource.
If there’s been a big change in the family, like a remarriage, a step-grandparent can be someone on a child’s side, says Papernow. “Very few people ever talk to the kids about this,” she says. “To have someone say out loud, ‘This is a lot of change,’ can be very helpful. And oftentimes the grandparent is in a place to do that.”