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.
"I have three grandchildren I am not allowed to see, communicate with, or give presents to, due to the parents. I am worried sick about what this is doing to the kids. We are so close. What can I do? Are there grandparent's rights? This is breaking my heart, and I want to know what I need to do to be able to legally see my three grandchildren. Can they do this to me?"
No grandparents have automatic legal "rights" to see or "visit" their grandchildren. But in some states, they may have rights to petition the court for visitation in certain situations—frequently in the case of families separated by events such as divorce, incarceration, or the death of a parent.
In states that do allow grandparents to petition for visitation, the standard for determining whether or not visitation is awarded varies. Some states ask grandparents to prove that it is in the "best interest of the child" to have a relationship with them. Other states require grandparents to prove it will "harm" the child if they do not have a relationship. Proving harm is much harder than proving that it is in the best interest of the child to see grandparents. Unfortunately, there are also states that don't allow grandparents to petition the court for visitation with grandchildren under any circumstances. While some grandparents do obtain court-ordered visitation arrangements with their grandchildren, most do not.
"I miss my grandchildren so very much. My heart breaks a little more each day. I feel so empty inside. I'm 62, and tomorrow isn't promised. How can I break the ice and heal this family before it's too late?"
Addressing family discord when it starts is probably the most important step to preventing a situation in which grandparents and grandchildren are separated. Healing small disagreements and family rifts before they fester and become full-blown breaks is essential. Sometimes all parties in a disagreement need to step up to the plate as adults, swallow their pride, and compromise. It can be very hard to do, but in these situations, you have the greatest motivation of all: the love of a child.
Tips for Families and Grandparents
- Focus on effective communication. Many family disagreements are simply a result of miscommunication and damaged relationships. Look for counseling, workshops, or support groups that help you improve your communication skills so you can get the desired results.
- Consider family counseling. Approach it with a "we're all in this together" attitude and a willingness to learn and compromise. You can find a referral for a therapist by visiting www.psychologytoday.com or the online Mental Health Locator Service established by the U.S. Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. For help finding a mental health agency in your local community where you might find free or low-cost services, call the Mental Health Information Center, toll-free, at 800-789-2647.
- Connect with other grandparents. Sometimes it helps just to know you are not alone and to learn from other grandparents. Get involved in the AARP Online Community Group "Visitation With Grandchildren."
- Try mediation before court. The adversarial nature of taking a family member to court can tear families apart and cause waves of damaged relationships. Most grandparents want to avoid going that far. Family counseling and mediation services are an option that families can consider when they can't come to agreement on their own. To find a trained family mediator in your area, visit www.mediate.com.
- Find legal information and local legal assistance at www.findlegalhelp.org, a site on which the American Bar Association (ABA) posts information about finding a lawyer and finding legal information—including how to handle a legal issue yourself ("pro se," or "self help") or how to find free or low-cost legal assistance. You can also contact the ABA by calling 312-988-5000 or by e-mailing email@example.com. The ABA also has tables summarizing all the states’ visitation laws.