There’s plenty of advice out in the world for grandparents, but for step-grandparents? Not so much. And, as families get more complicated, grandparenting can be, too.
Take this story from Courtney Fields McVey, a licensed clinical social worker in Atlanta. She describes herself as the child of “multiple divorces” who saw step-grandparents come and go.
Even at 44, she remembers one stinging holiday when her step-grandparents gave gifts to their biological grandchildren but not to her. If you’re a step-grandparent, or about to become one, consider her experience a warning.
“You don’t have to force it to feel like that person’s been there all your life,” says McVey, owner and therapist at the Divorce Resource Center of Georgia. “But I do think it’s important to still offer the type of unconditional love and regard that you would automatically feel inclined to give to a biological relationship.”
Blending families not always easy
You likely know a step-grandparent or are one, partly due to longer life spans and the increasing divorce rate among people over 50. Perhaps you married someone with grandchildren, or your child married someone with children, or your stepchild had a child.
The Pew Research Institute estimates that more than 40 percent of Americans have at least one step-relative in their family. And among adults ages 51 and older who are grandparents, nearly 22 percent of grandfathers and 20 percent of grandmothers have at least one step-grandchild, according to 2018 research published in the Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.
Creating a new “blended” family is hard work, says Patricia Papernow, a Boston-based psychologist and author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t. Papernow, 75, is a stepparent, parent, grandmother and step-grandmother, and takes issue with language that oversimplifies the bonding process.
“People go into this expecting blending,” says Papernow. “I always put it in quotes because it captures the longing but not the reality, often, of the stepfamily.”
She and other experts caution that it’s the responsibility of the adults in the family to put children’s interests first and not make them feel like go-betweens or caught in the middle. For example, keep family gatherings safe and neutral; don’t make them a place to discuss difficulties or iron out relationships, says McVey.
“Anything that you do that ups the tension between the adults is hard on kids,” says Papernow. “And that includes saying snarky things about another parent or ex-spouse. Encourage your adult children not to do that, as well.”
Step-grandparents are important
John Reed, 66, of Little Rock, Arkansas, lives in a four-generation household that includes his 90-year-old mother and his wife, plus his wife’s daughter and the daughter's son, Roman, 9. Reed, known to his step-grandson as "Poppy," has been part of Roman’s life since shortly after he was born. Although Reed has two sons of his own, neither has kids. His wife, Angie, does have other children and grandchildren who are all part of Roman’s world.
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.
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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.”
Susan Moeller is a contributing writer who covers lifestyle, health, finance and human-interest topics. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she also writes features and essays for the Boston Globe Magazine and her local NPR station, among other outlets.