Being estranged from one’s grown up children is hard enough, but when that also means losing your grandchildren the pain can be unbearable. Thankfully, there are ways of fighting back – including legal ones.
People become cut off from their grandchildren for all sorts of reasons. Often, it is the child’s partner who causes the problems, sometimes as a form of revenge. For example, a young woman meets a man from a higher social class. His mother disapproves, considering her beneath her son. Over the following years, the girl feels belittled and humiliated every time she visits. Then the grandchildren arrive. Now, for the first time, the balance of power shifts. Her boyfriend’s mother is the one who visits, and it is she who depends on her daughter-in-law’s good will. By limiting her access, the daughter-in-law establishes power and wins revenge.
A first-time mother or father may feel the need to assert themselves. They may also resent being patronized by their in-laws. That was bearable when they were a spotty, shy teenager, being introduced to them for the first time, but now they are a parent. They have responsibilities. And they want respect – especially in front of their children.
Of course, grandparents may be astonished by this hostility. Problems usually arise, however, through misunderstanding. Grandparents must walk a tightrope. On the one hand, they do not wish to be too intrusive, on the other they want to offer love and support. Sometimes the son or daughter-in-law feels they call too much, sometimes not enough.
Your child may also use the grandchildren for revenge. Maybe they felt in the shadow of a much-loved sibling. For example, a girl has an older brother. From day one she senses that he is everyone’s favorite. Throughout her childhood she endures constant put downs. Great things are expected of her brother: he is going to be a doctor, a movie star, or a great writer. By her late teens she is desperate to escape, so she marries and has a child. Her brother, however, drifts into a life of drug taking and petty crime. For the first time, she is the focus of her parents’ attention, especially her infant son. But instead of being flattered, she is incensed. So now you are interested, she thinks, now that my brother has let you down. Well, I don’t need you anymore; I have a family of my own! Let’s see how you like being rejected.
First, you need to understand why they won’t let you see them. Whether or not you feel responsible is irrelevant. Ask your children to meet you face to face. If you want to regain access, that means swallowing your pride. Anger is toxic in a family dispute, leading people to say things they cannot take back (needless to say, you should also avoid alcohol during these kinds of rows).
If they agree to meet you, be humble. Above all, listen to what they have to say. And that means really listening, not waiting for them to finish speaking. Prepare yourself for the unexpected. For example, how will you react if your child says you are a bad influence? Or that you are too bossy and intrusive? What will you say if they inform you that you don’t deserve access? That you were so selfish and incompetent as a parent they don’t see why you should enjoy your grandchildren. Worst of all, maybe your grandchildren don’t want to see you! How would you cope with that?
Dealing With the Situation
Patience, humility and understanding are key. You must be prepared to give everyone time and space to cool down. Be sure your grandchildren know that you love them, and make it clear to their parents that you wish to see them (don’t assume other people know how you feel). So long as that is clear, the best thing you can do is step back. For example, let’s say there was a bitter argument. Your daughter-in-law accused you of interfering, then of being a bad parent. She caught you in a bad mood and you said a few things you now regret. A few days later, you receive a text informing you that she and your son had “talked the matter through” and decided it was best for everyone if you stopped coming over and left them in peace.
First, you must reply in some way. A letter or e-mail is best (if you phone them you will forget to say what you planned, or it will come out wrong, or you will simply be choked with emotion). If you do not reply, they will assume that you share their opinion, even that you are relieved. Always avoid insults and personal criticism. Focus instead on the situation and how they make you feel. In other words, do not write to your son “you always were selfish and spiteful, even as a child,” or to your daughter-in-law “you never liked me because you never gave me a chance.” This is all futile and likely to make them dig in still deeper. Whether you are replying after a falling out or seeking to repair a rift that occurred years ago, the same rule applies.
Describe how you actually feel. Use words like “heartbroken” and “lonely.” Once you have done so, explain your side of things. Be as reasonable as you can. To put it crudely, your child and their partner hold all the cards. They have all the power. You are trying to win them over. So writing things like “I don’t see why I should apologize when I’ve done nothing wrong” will get you nowhere. On the contrary, it may give your child’s partner the excuse he or she needs to cut you out forever.
More importantly, focus on how this will affect the grandchildren themselves. The relationship between a child and her grandparents is a special one. Indeed, for teenagers it can be vital. For a start, there isn’t the same resentment. You don’t need to read Freud to know that boys often feel hostile towards their father, or that girls sometimes feel the same toward their mother. Parents have to set and enforce rules. With grandparents there is none of this tension. However the parents may feel about you, to cut off their own children from the love and guidance of their grandparents would be cruel and irresponsible. Obviously you shouldn’t word it like that, but make it clear that they are hurting their children as much as you.
Once you have said your piece, give them time and space to think it over. It may help to suggest something very small – the right to see them once a month, for example. Refusing a reasonable suggestion is much harder. Once initial contact has been made, you can build from there. So focus on making that contact. Salesmen used to be told to “get a foot in the door and then build on it;” you must do the same.
If they reply, or you have it out face to face, agree to make the changes they demand. It doesn’t matter if the criticisms seem unreasonable. Do you want to see your grandchildren or don’t you? Of course, the criticism may be perfectly fair. For example, maybe you do drink too much, maybe you do interfere, and so on. But don’t agree unless you mean what you say. If they give you a second chance and you blow it, there may be no going back.
If the grandchildren don’t want to see you, that may be trickier. Resist the urge to buy your way back in with toys and clothes. A relationship based on money isn’t a real relationship. Either see one another out of love and affection or don’t bother. Unfortunately, some teens can be quite mercenary, even exploitative.
If you have tried to establish contact, or tried to apologize, and got nowhere, it may be worth exploring legal options. In some countries grandparents have legal rights. In May 2018, for example, the UK Parliament took steps to give grandparents access. So explore your options. Obviously legal action should be a final resort, something you try when you can see no hope of reconciliation. Remember, this may mean the end of the road for you and your child. After all, receiving a letter from your legal representative, or a court appointment, isn’t likely to heal any rifts!
You could also contact your grandchildren directly. Make it clear to them that you are not disappearing from their life through choice. Don’t blame their parents, but do make it clear that you love them and want to see them. An eight or nine-year-old won’t forget this. When she becomes a little older, you may find her on your doorstep one afternoon, in spite of her parents’ disapproval.
If they are already in their teens, they may openly defy their parents. A spiteful daughter-in-law, for example, who bans her 14-year-old son from seeing you because you have annoyed her, is pushing her authority too far. If he is mature for his age, he may, quite rightly, turn to her and say “if you and my grandfather have a problem, that is between you two. Don’t use me as a pawn. I will see my grandparents if I want.”
Ultimately, you may just have to accept it. If your grandchildren make it clear that they do not want to see you, or if your child and his partner move to another country, you have no choice. Painful as it may be, this isn’t the end of your life. Use the time (and money) you would have spent on them doing other things: reconnecting with old friends, taking up new hobbies, or writing that novel you’d always planned.