- When parents alienate children from their grandparents, the grandparents should not immediately be blamed.
- Grandparent alienation leads to ambiguous grief as they mourn the emotional loss of a grandchild.
- Grandparents may be treated in the same 13 ways that parental alienation works.
In the animal world, grandparents are a rare breed; it’s believed that only a handful of species have grandparents (grandmothers, specifically), who fulfill defined roles. These include giraffes, elephants, and whales, among a few others.
Grandmothers play a caretaking and protective role in these species—from keeping their grand offspring in line to fighting off predators. While grandfathers in the animal kingdom haven’t been found to have a similar role, research indicates that having a grandfather in their life positively influences a human’s mental health.
Overall, having multigenerational involvement in raising a family is a positive outcome for the children involved (Yang & Wild, 2022). In addition, being a grandparent involved in your grandchild’s life is also a very good thing.
Unfortunately, there are grandparents who are being forcibly kept from establishing and maintaining a healthy and emotionally satisfying relationship with their grandchildren by their grandchildren’s parents. Grandparent alienation not only punishes a grandparent, but children are also denied a unique relationship that offers benefits to both the child and the grandparent.
While being tasked with full-time caregiving for grandchildren can be burdensome and may feel like “too much” for some, grandparents who have little contact with their grandchildren and provide no care for their grandchildren actually suffer diminished well-being (Leimer & van Wijk, 2022). Those who are involved in their grandchildren’s lives reap both quantitative and qualitative benefits, including to health, longevity, a sense of being needed, and holding a special role in their grandchildren’s lives.
While too much involvement can feel overbearing, too little involvement can be detrimental, too. But when parents alienate their children from their grandparents, even greater harm is done. This affects both the grandparent and the child. We typically think of one parent alienating the other parent from their child.
However, Bounds and Matthewson (2022) found that parents use the following 13 tactics (for more information, see 13 Tactics Used in Grandparent Alienation) to alienate grandparents from their grandchild:
- Controlling contact
- Emotional manipulation
- Banning information
- Threatening correspondence
- Social media blackout
- Encouraging disrespect
- Rejecting gifts/cards
- Manipulation within an intact family
- False allegations
What Causes Grandparental Alienation?
- Prior abuse or mistreatment of the parents by the grandparents: It's important to note that if there is a history of abuse in a family that has not been satisfactorily addressed, it is essential to protect the grandchildren from their grandparents. No child should be put at risk nor should any parent feel the need to provide access to their children to the grandparents who failed in their roles as parents. When parents caused, or allowed, their children to suffer adverse childhood events, abused their children in any way, or failed to be present in meaningful ways for their children, there can be more than sufficient reasons for parents to refuse to allow them access to their grandchildren. Prioritizing the well-being of a child is a primary responsibility of a parent.
- Current abuse or mistreatment of the grandchildren by the parents: Another reason that grandparents may be kept from their grandchildren may be to hide the evidence of the mistreatment of the children. If parents are actively engaged in addictive behaviors, including substance abuse or process addictions, they may avoid all contact with any family members outside their immediate household. If parents are suffering from mental illness, especially undiagnosed and untreated disorders, they may isolate their families from outsiders. If a parent fears the potential removal of their children from the home, for these or other reasons, they may be especially vigilant in keeping their parents from seeing their grandchildren or visiting their home.
- Additional causes. However, in some families, the grandparent is just collateral damage if the child is also being alienated from one parent. Parental alienation can easily spill over to the extended family of the targeted parent. In those cases, the grandparent and the parent may feel a kinship and share a common goal of regaining access to the child. In other situations, the grandchild’s parent may work to alienate their own parent from their children. The grandparent is cut off from the family and denied time with their grandchild. While it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which a grandparent’s out-of-bounds behavior, such as history or suspicions of abuse, addictions, high levels of narcissism, or other damaging behaviors might warrant keeping a grandchild safe from their presence, there are other reasons that an adult child may seek to keep their child from engaging with their grandparent. Some of the other more common reasons for cutting off grandparents include parents' separation or divorce from their partner with the partner gaining custody and control of any grandchildren; relocation of the grandchild and their families; death of the grandchild’s parent who was the offspring of the grandparent; and family conflicts. Each of these makes sense if there were problems between the grandparents and their offspring or their child's partner, but there is another reason that might be surprising.
Can a Family Be “Too Close”?
According to Bowenian system theory, there may be issues that stem from the grandparent and their child being too close growing up and experiencing a level of emotional fusion (Golly, 2019). This can leave an adult child hungry for emotional independence and in dire need of an identity quite separate from their family of origin.
In these cases, it can be the overly tight-knit family-of-origin relationships that prompt the now-adult child to seek to keep their own children away from their grandparent. The drive to differentiate themselves from their own parents can lead to a parent feeling the safest move is to isolate their child from any efforts at over-involvement on the part of the grandparents. This is how the emotional cut-off begins—in the earliest relationship between the grandparents and the child’s parent.
While the cut-off from the grandparents seems to solve the problem of past fusion for the parent, it also highlights the fact that a problem existed in the early part of their relationship. Now, it creates a new problem for the family, as grandparents are denied the opportunity to get to know their grandchild.
Unfortunately, if it is an emotional cut-off due to early family-of-origin issues, it requires the adult child to get involved in therapeutic work with their parents, or grandparents have to be willing to acknowledge that they may have encouraged too closely fused a relationship with their child as they raised them. The longer a cut-off remains, typically the more intractable it becomes.
Dealing With the Grief
Grandparents who experience alienation from their grandchildren may suffer from chronic and ambiguous grief. Ambiguous grief is particularly painful because their grandchild is still present and alive, but the grandchild’s absence is doubly hurtful because of this. Physical presence and emotional absence are a painful combination.
Bringing in a mediator is also a possible solution if your grandchild’s parents are willing. In addition, if you are unable to visit in person, negotiate for phone calls or video calls with your grandchild; letters and attendance at public events, such as school concerts or athletic events, are possible negotiating points.
If the cut-off is an out-growth of emotional fusion in the family, remember that the harder you try to get close, the more likely you are to be pushed away. The solution to the problem is not going to be more of the same behavior that created the problem.
Grandparents may find significant support through involvement in support groups designed to provide some form of comfort, acceptance, and shared experiences to members. With support groups, experiences are normalized and you feel a sense of connection to members. Individual counseling can provide a secure place to share your experiences as well, and to have a space to reflect individually on what the loss means to you, how you can try and make sense of it, and perhaps look back at ways that you may have had a hand in being overly close to your child. It can help to make sense of what has happened, but it is never helpful to get caught up in self-blame or stuck in the past and asking the “if only” questions.
It hurts to lose contact with your grandchildren and it’s disheartening that grandparents have so few means of gaining access. Reaching out for support can provide you with a sense of understanding and empathy and this may need to be enough for now.
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Bounds, O., & Matthewson, M. (2022). Parental Alienating Behaviours Experienced by Alienated Grandparents. Journal of Family Issues, 0192513X221126753.
Golly, C. A. (2019). Grandparents cut off from grandchildren: An exploratory study. Dissertation. Barry University.
Leimer, B., & van Ewijk, R. (2022). Are grandchildren good for you? Well-being and health effects of becoming a grandparent. Social Science & Medicine, 313, 115392.
Yang, S. A., & Wild, L. G. (2022). Associations between grandparent involvement and psychological difficulties in adolescents facing family adversity. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 31(5), 1489-1500.