- Grandparent alienation can be subtle or blatant, depending on the individuals involved and the circumstances.
- Alienation can grow in intensity and involve a number of people who shield children from their grandparents.
- Grandparents should take advantage of the access they are given to show grandchildren they are there for them.
There are a wide variety of reasons that grandparents experience alienation from their grandchildren (see "Grandparent Alienation: A Loss Like No Other"), but regardless of why it happens, there is a shared pain among all who experience it. No one can deny that there are too many instances in which it is very much in the best interest of children to be kept at a safe distance from their grandparents. However, there are also too many cases where grandparents could play an important role in their grandchildren’s lives, but are kept from this by parents who are driven by unhealthy motives. The focus of this discussion focuses on the latter.
Each case of grandparent alienation is unique and reflects its own complicated set of family dynamics.
In essence, grandparent alienation is an intentional effort to ensure grandparents are unable to engage with their grandchildren in significant, meaningful ways. Some parents may allow brief engagement through phone calls or video calls. Others may allow written correspondence such as cards and letters, but no emails or texts. In some cases, no contact whatsoever is allowed between the grandparent and their grandchild.
Below are some of the ways (Bounds & Matthewson, 2022) in which parents may wrest control of the relationship between their children and their own parents in ways that lead to grandparent alienation:
- Brainwashing. Children are constantly being reminded of how bad, unfit, unloving, and uncaring their grandparents are towards the child. Parents will exaggerate and lie about the feelings the grandparents hold for the child in an effort to stoke dislike or fear of the grandparents in the child.
- Controlling contact. Parents will put in place rigid boundaries about any type of contact between their parents and their child. They may limit the day and time a visit could occur, they may refuse to allow packages or gifts to be given to the child, or they may promise a visit but never allow it to actually occur.
- Emotional manipulation. Parents will do all that they can to turn their child against their grandparents. They use all means of blocking out acknowledgement of prior healthy engagement and relationship behaviors and convince the child that their grandparents are not invested in the child nor worthy of any positive feelings or efforts at future engagement. They may find ways to “punish” their child for expressing any positive feelings or memories of their grandparent.
- Banning information. Grandparents are kept in the dark about what is happening with their grandchild. This may be essential information related to topics such as health concerns, illnesses, or academic performance. Even sharing information about families moving or children changing schools may be withheld. Parents enlist their children, other family members, or school/medical personnel to withhold information from the grandparents.
- Denigration. The parents will put down the grandparents in front of the child and encourage the child to think as poorly of their grandparents as they possibly can. The parents lower the value that the grandparent has in their child’s life and show a complete absence of respect for the grandparents through lies and falsehoods.
- Interrogation. Parents will interrogate their child relentlessly about any time spent with the grandparent and do it in such a way that children begin to assume that something “bad” is happening when they are with their grandparents. They assume that the questioning is based on some real factor that puts them at risk when with grandparents, and over time, they will be less likely to desire to spend time with them.
- Threatening correspondence. Parents will send “hate mail” demanding that the grandparents stay away from their child, or they may threaten to retain legal counsel if grandparents try to make unscheduled visits or show up at events where they know their grandchild will be.
- Secret-keeping. Parents not only keep information about their children from their parents intentionally, but they may also drag their children into the behavior by warning the child to never share information about themselves with their grandparents. Another form of secret-keeping involves parents sharing information with the child about their grandparent that may be an unfavorable truth or a falsehood. Children are told that they are being trusted with a “secret,” which can be appealing to children, and then they are instructed not to share it with the person who is the subject of the secret, their grandparent. This creates a deeper separation between child and grandparent as they now have been brought into a tighter circle with their parent and the boundaries that keep the grandparents out has just been strengthened.
- Social media blackout. So often, alienated grandparents rely on social media updates from the child or their parents to be able to stay up to date on what is happening in their grandchildren’s lives. Parents may block the grandparents from all social media accounts that the parents maintain, or their children use. This can be a powerful tactic that eliminates even passive engagement with a grandchild.
- Encouraging disrespect. Parents may model disrespect for their own parents and encourage their children to speak disrespectfully about their grandparents, or directly to their grandparents, and to behave in disrespectful ways, as well.
- Rejecting gifts/cards. This can be especially painful to the grandparent, who may have been highly invested in choosing an appropriate gift for their grandchild, as well as painful for a child if they see a gift intended for them be sent back to the giver.
- Manipulation within an intact family. This typically refers to the manipulation that begins before the alienation is firmly set in place. It can begin subtly and grow over time as other alienating behaviors may be enacted.
- False allegations. In this instance, the alienation intensifies as parents make false allegations about their own parents’ behavior and actions. This may involve accusations for such acts as prior or current abuse, the sending of threatening communication, harassment, or stalking. Once accused of this type of act, especially if legal charges are pressed, it can be almost impossible to ever get past this.
Is Resolution Possible?
Undoing grandparent alienation is not an easy undertaking and once it’s begun, prevention efforts may be ineffective. Accessing legal support can be challenging, depending on the state in which the family resides, and parents may be even more resistant to allowing the grandparent back into any aspect of their grandchild’s life. Seeking assistance from groups dedicated to supporting alienated grandparents is a primary means of education and support.
Taking advantage of any means of keeping in touch with your grandchild is key to possible reunification as the child matures. Don’t refuse a small sliver of entry into your grandchild’s life even if you feel you deserve so much more. By rejecting a parent’s small offerings, you are actually rejecting your grandchild. Stay the course and be present for your grandchild when they are finally in a place where they are able to reach out to you.
If you would like to share about your experiences, please click here to provide information about your own experiences of alienation.
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Bounds, O., & Matthewson, M. (2022). Parental Alienating Behaviours Experienced by Alienated Grandparents. Journal of Family Issues, 0192513X221126753.