Watching your grandchildren grow up and being involved in their lives is one of life’s great joys.
A warm and connected relationship with a grandchild is something most of us long for and look forward to.
Most grandparents envision sleepy bedtime stories, trips to the park, fun days out, and magical Christmases full of excitement and anticipation.
To find yourself unable to see your grandchildren, therefore, is an extremely difficult thing to accept.
For many grandparents, the feeling has been likened to the grief of losing a loved one.
In more recent years, studies now show that, if left unaddressed, grandchild separation can have long-term negative effects on a grandparent’s wellbeing.
It is, therefore, important to acknowledge the situation and deal with the angry and confusing feelings that arise in order to maintain your own mental health as a grandparent.
Below, we will discuss how to cope with not seeing your grandchildren, from understanding the reasons and knowing your rights, to developing coping strategies.
Reasons for not seeing your grandchildren
The reasons grandparents can’t see their grandchildren vary.
For some grandparents, the lack of contact with grandchildren is simply a matter of not living near them. With many people now having to move to more accommodating areas for work and business, there are an increasing amount of grandparents who find themselves absent from the lives of their families.
With a lot of parents now working from home too, there is less need to stay rooted to our places of work. Many are therefore moving further afield to areas more amenable to raising a child.
While Facetime and Zoom calls are nice, there is no substitute for a real hug. The distance between families is therefore a particular burden on grandparents, seeing grandchildren a lot less than they’d like.
Obviously, in an ideal world, family relationships would be strong and healthy. There would be no miscommunication, jealousy, or bitterness and everyone would get on. Back in the real world, however, family arguments do happen and oftentimes with significant consequences.
When falling out with one of our children and their spouses, access to grandchildren is often restricted or completely cut-off. This frustrating and painful effect of familial disputes is an all-too-common story.
Whether we like it or not, many of us are now working for longer, with retirement not yet a reality. This is often a significant impediment to seeing grandchildren. Far from the vision of mornings in the park and afternoons playing house, many nans and grandads find themselves stuck at their place of work.
This results in less time spent with our grandchildren, which can give rise to feelings of guilt and frustration.
Using grandchildren against grandparents
One of the uglier sides of family disputes is the use of grandchildren against grandparents. This typically involves a family member intentionally denying grandparents access to grandchildren, often as a form of revenge.
This period of denial can be temporary, protracted, and sometimes even permanent. In more serious cases, parents can even begin to turn grandchildren against grandparents.
This is called grandparent alienation syndrome and is an adaptation of parental alienation syndrome, an idea put forward by the psychiatrist Richard Gardner in 1985. According to the child legal organization CAFCASS, parental alienation syndrome is “when a child’s hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.”
Just like parental alienation syndrome, grandparents can also find that a child is rewarded for acting negatively towards them, conditioning them to continue the behaviour.
This insidious form of psychological abuse is unfair on both the grandchild and the grandparent. With the middle generation acting as a gatekeeper between grandchildren and grandparents, there is an element of power-wielding at play, with access to them used almost as a weapon.
This denial of access causes considerable heartache and sometimes irreparable damage to relationships.
Unfortunately, in the UK grandparents do not have any automatic rights to see their grandchildren. This means – as unfair as it is – grandparent alienation is legal. Parents, then, can legally deny grandparents access to grandchildren.
Nevertheless, there is still some recourse grandparents can take to try and see their grandchildren.
Should you find yourself cut off from seeing your grandchildren, the best course of action is to get in touch with a professional mediator. These are independent organizations that help organise arrangements between family members when a resolution cannot be found.
If mediation is not possible or has not worked, it’s also possible to take your case to the family court. Under the Children’s Act (1989), grandparents and other family members can seek contact orders from family courts, with previous access and the reasons for access denial all being considered.
Family court is often thought of as a last resort, however. The situation is elevated in severity and can often have the opposite effect of bridging relationships. It is important, then, to try frank and honest contact with the parents first.
How to cope with not seeing your grandchildren
Whatever the reason is for not being able to see your grandchildren, there are some tried and tested coping strategies that can really help. While these will never bring you the joy that a grandchild can, they can help express your love and maintain your own wellbeing.
Phone calls/video calls
While far from ideal, phone calls and Facetime do at least offer some contact with grandchildren who live far away. Simply hearing a grandchild’s voice is all it takes to feel reconnected.
If possible, though, the use of video calls through services such as Apple’s Facetime or Facebook’s Portal can elevate the experience beyond the usual voice call. With children growing up with technology at their fingertips, the distinction between a video call and a face-to-face encounter may not be as considerable as you may think.
A video call, then, can be a great way to keep in touch, giving you the ability to see how they’ve grown, play games, see their paintings, and even do activities (like baking) together as they get older.
While modern technology creates some wonderful in-the-moment experiences, they don’t last as a letter does.
There’s nothing quite like receiving a letter through the post as a child, making them feel special and grownup, intrigued to see what the envelope contains. And, as the child grows up, these letters will become treasured keepsakes that are a physical reminder of your love and care.
Letters also provide a calm and non-combative way to get in touch with alienated grandchildren. When a parent cuts off access, a letter is a concrete demonstration that despite everything, their grandparent wanted to see them.
Heartfelt letters can also act as facilitators for change, allowing us to express things clearly, taking our time to choose just the right words. This can undo some damage done and, sometimes, help mend broken bonds.
Talk to others
Perhaps one of the best ways to cope is to speak to those in a similar situation. While it may feel like you are alone, there are plenty of others out there going through the grief and anxiety that estrangement from grandchildren induces. These can be found via Facebook groups, for example.
If you require professional help, it is important to get in touch with your doctor, who may refer you to a therapist or local charity.
There are also online organizations such as Granpart, which specialise in supporting grandparents cope with having little or no contact with their grandchildren.
Another route is to get in touch with the charity Relate. This charity offers a range of ways to get in touch with counselling services to discuss your situation, including phone calls, video chats, and web chats.
How to let go of your grandchildren
Becoming alienated from a grandchild is stressful and painful. Feelings of jealousy can also occur when one set of grandparents get to see the grandchildren and we ourselves can’t.
This is perfectly normal and understandable given the situation. However, after exhausting all our options and doing everything we can do to stay in touch, it is important to accept the situation.
Sometimes, there is simply nothing we can do to resolve the situation, and acceptance is the only course of action we can take.
This might just be a temporary measure, and the distance you give your family could help to heal any fractured relationships.
In the meantime, one of the most effective methods of self-care and acceptance is meditation.
There are many different types of practice, but one of the most popular is mindful breathing meditation. This is a technique in which you learn to slow down, focus on your breath, and allow thoughts and feelings to occur without judgement.
The basic technique is to sit or lie with your eyes closed and gradually slow your breathing down. As you do this, focus on the sensations of exhaling and inhaling, bringing your focus back to your breath should it stray. If thoughts and feelings occur, try not to identify with them. Instead, let them float on as if clouds passing by overhead, simply accepting them for what they are, whether they be jealousy, anxiety, anger, or even sadness.
Whatever the reason for not being able to see grandchildren, there’s still plenty we can do to express our love and maintain our mental health.
If family circumstances lead to either relocation or dispute, it’s vital to try and build bridges and remain in touch.
Acceptance of your current situation can help mitigate any negative psychological effects, along with reaching out for support where needed.