A Crowded Family Tree

Once upon a time, a child in a typical family had two sets of grandparents: a maternal and paternal pair, four grandparents who could lavish attention, tell stories about the old days, provide babysitting duties and dole out extra cookies and ice cream when mom and dad weren’t looking. Through the decades, adult grandchildren were there to assist their aging grandparents, offering help and hands, reversing roles and becoming the new caretakers.

But an explosion in the divorce rate in the 1970s, coupled with a rise in domestic partnerships across the age spectrum, created more blended families that have shattered the traditional unit. Ripple effects have continued to alter family connections and interactions, especially for the 70 million grandparents who now live in the U.S.

Some changes are for the better, others not as much.

“Picture a family tree of a child who had parents that divorced and remarried — it’s possible that a child could have eight grandparents, and even those grandparents could divorce and remarry and then that number is exponentially increased as well,” says Caroline Cicero, an associate professor of gerontology at USC. “[Multiple grandparents are] changing the dynamics of families because there are many factors. Issues also come up even when couples are not married, especially domestic partnerships in older age; these relationships can affect numerous family members in so many ways.”

A family with numerous grandparents can be “a wonderful advantage or a nightmare,” says Christine Crosby, editor of Grand Magazine, a national publication focused on grandparent issues. When families are young, multiple grandparents mean more eyes to watch and positively influence the grandchildren — which can help overworked and exhausted parents. What could go wrong?

Well, there’s a natural friction that arises between grandparents, says Crosby, adding that it’s common even among grandparent couples who get along with each other and are all engaged with kids and grandkids. “I think it comes to down to jealousy and an underlying sense of competition,” she explains. Who gets to buy the First Communion dress? Why did they get to set up the college fund first? Why are they going there for the holidays? Look at them showing off with that expensive gift!

The solution is communication, and while it should originate from the parents, it often doesn’t because parents are overwhelmed or unaware of a potential powder keg. “It behooves one set of grandparents to get to know the other set of grandparents and the third or fourth set,” says Crosby. “I think it’s up to all the grandparents to realize how critically important this is, and how smart it would be to collaborate with one another.”

Crosby tells a story about how her son-in-law’s family kept jealousy in check. “Recently I received two beautiful books of our grandchildren that the grandmother put together not only for Mom and Dad, but she sent copies to me,” she says. “She wrote a note thanking me for the opportunity to share these beautiful grandchildren with her. It’s thoughtful, inclusive; it’s all the right things you want to do.”

But there can be a dark side, especially when it comes to nasty divorces; a parent may
consider an ex’s parents — the grandparents — off-limits, even if they proved to be a positive force in the past. “Those grandparents get the shaft and it can be a very sad thing,” says Crosby.

Indeed, being cut off from grandchildren can be emotionally devastating for seniors. Created in 2011, the nonprofit Alienated Grandparents Anonymous (AGA) reaches out with expert advice and support to grandparents worldwide who have experienced unhealthy behaviors, unrealistic expectations and high emotions that have destroyed or critically damaged relationships with their own adult children and grandchildren. Today, there are 129 support groups (including some in California) throughout 22 countries. During a national conference call each month, grandparents ask questions, tell their stories and help each other navigate the choppy waters of family dynamics.

“Grandparent alienation is all about power and control,” explains the founder, who asked for anonymity. AGA’s mission is to harness the help of professional experts in psychological alienation and offer strategies for rebuilding and healing relationships marred by rage, fear, jealousy and even betrayal from close family members. The founder tells of grandparents heartbroken from being denied access to their grandchildren, especially poignant after an adult child passes away either from an illness, unexpected death or even murder. “Even if you raised a healthy child, it can be who they marry that can be an issue,” she says. After all, when your child marries, “they marry into the dynamics of that other household.” Toxic daughters-in-law, for example, can bring jealousy and insecurities into the marriage by manipulating situations to reduce the influence of grandparents.

In support groups or on AGA conference calls, seniors usually listen quietly at first. But after hearing inspiring stories of others who’ve closed the gap, many become active participants, learning skills to navigate situations for better outcomes. “We encourage them to periodically send a message of love to their adult child, just one or two sentences, and then tell them something about what they are currently doing to get maybe a response,” says the founder, adding that these messages can be sent via text, voicemail, email, postcards or letters. “These messages can be strong, simple reminders.”

Another strategy for grandparents who have been completely cut off is this: Create a memory box filled with photos, stories, pictures of presents sent to the grandchildren (gifts that often are intercepted and not delivered) and other date-related mementos. These boxes have proven powerful, the founder says, citing the experience of a 17-year-old who angrily confronted his grandparents at their house, demanding to know why they “gave up on him as a child.” The grandparents calmly presented the box, and as they went through the materials inside together, the boy broke down, realizing he hadn’t been abandoned.

Young parents today often have higher standards on what kind of influences they want for their children, says Joel Coleman, a San Francisco–based psychologist and senior fellow at the nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families. “They demand certain levels of involvement and grandparents often can feel criticized and think that their values are being shunned,” he says. “There is a lot of potential for hurt feelings and misunderstandings.”

Alternatively, Coleman says that today’s seniors have a more active lifestyle than previous generations — and another source of tension can be adult children demanding their parents be “more involved with their grandchildren than the grandparents have the time or energy or resources to do.” Arguments can heat up (Don’t you care about your grandkids?) that can lead to threats (Well, maybe you don’t get to see your grandkids), which could set everyone back to square one.

With more people bonded in family relations — such as multiple grandparents — there needs to be a “lot of maturity and good psychological health for everyone involved,” says Coleman. “Learn how to communicate in a clear, low-key, non-
confrontational way and make sure there is clarity about expectations and sensitivity. Keep criticisms to a minimum.”

Healthy connections among adult children, grandchildren and grandparents can be a life-changing experience for everyone. According to the American Grandparents Association, 72 percent of grandparents say that being a grandparent is the single most important and satisfying aspect of their lives. “If grandparents are involved in the lives of their grandchildren, they feel younger and have a renewed sense of purpose,” explains Annette Ermshar, a Pasadena-based psychologist, adding that research has also shown that if grandparents have emotionally close ties to their grandchildren, they have less depression. Hanging around grandkids on a daily basis keeps “grandparents mentally sharp,” she adds. “Studies have shown that grandmothers perform better at cognitive tests if they have regular contact with their grandchildren.”

Grandparents can also feel more comfortable in the modern world when they use technology to stay connected to their grandchildren. “Even simple texting is cognitively stimulating to them,” says Ermshar. If it wasn’t for grandkids, grandparents might not be exposed to social media, Skype and other contemporary communications.

Likewise, grandchildren can have renewed respect and a sense of security when their relationships with grandparents are strong — no matter how many sets of grandparents they have. Says Ermshar: “There is life wisdom and experience along with firsthand historical perspectives that can enrich their grandchildren’s lives and give them a better understanding of the past.”