As every parent knows, children change everything. Many parents are surprised to discover that becoming a parent can even alter the relationship they have with their own parents or in-laws. While many families have conflict or dissatisfaction with grandparents, most of the complaints are about those who are overly involved. Yet many parents struggle with the deep hurt and frustration that comes from a lesser-known phenomenon: grandparents who are ambivalent, avoidant, or disinterested in their role as a grandparent.
As someone who grapples with this, I can attest it is incredibly painful. It not only feels like a rejection of my incredible child, it’s at complete odds with the widespread message that being a grandparent is wildly fulfilling.
Grandparents Who Don't Help
According to licensed psychologist and author Dr. Vivian Diller, there are a number of factors that help create ambivalent grandparents.
“Most grandparents today are among the Baby Boomer population,” she says. “This is the ‘forever young’ generation, entering midlife with highly charged feelings about aging, and it's reflected in how they view their role as grandparents. While they were often brought up by parents whose parents helped raise their kids and assumed they too would do the same one day, the reality is many in their 60s and 70s are still working, often longer than expected.”
Some ambivalent grandparents, particularly women, find that they don’t want their free time consumed by childcare.
“Another dynamic that makes grandparenting an ambivalent experience is that Baby Boomer women were the first generation to truly exercise their freedom of choice — to stay at home or work. While their mothers may not have had those same choices, women today don't react well to feeling pushed into the role as grandmothers. It's not that Boomers don't enjoy grandparenting, and many are deeply attached to their grandkids. But many want the whole experience to be more on their terms, which no doubt is disappointing to their children.”
Another important factor is the counter-transitional nature of the grandparent role.
“Grandparenting is a counter transitional role,” says Megan Dolbin-MacNab, MD, director of the Virginia Tech Marriage and Family Therapy Doctoral Program. “It’s a role you don’t necessarily choose to enter; it’s up to your kids. It’s a role people take on, and we have lots of cultural ideas about what it means, and that can create conflict.”
It’s therefore very important for parents to know what they want from grandparents and communicate it to them clearly.
“Try to have an open conversation about what you’re hoping for," says Dr Dolbin-MacNab. "Of course, it can be tricky as a new parent because you might not know how to address it or what all your wants and hopes are. But as a family, talk about what both parties want and need can be very constructive.”
She also notes that it’s important for parents to offer grandparents explicit opportunities for involvement.
Choosing the Right Approach
“Parents have to ask themselves: Am I doing the best I can to facilitate those grandparents’ involvement? Let’s say you never invite them, but when you do, it’s at the last minute. That’s probably not going to work out with the grandparents attending. You can say things like: ‘It’s important to me for you to be involved with the kids. Is there anything we can do to make it easier for you to spend more time with them?”
In some cases, though, no amount of discussion will change an ambivalent grandparent’s lack of involvement — and parents will have to accept that.
“For a lot of parents, this can feel like a rejection of child and self,” Dolbin-MacNab says. “Reaching out to others for support is important. It’s OK to be angry and hurt. But don’t express that in front of your child. Don’t badmouth the grandparent to the grandchild,” she says. “Doing this can create further tensions and difficulties. Find people you can confide in and don’t involve the children.”
Christy Burkett, a therapist in private practice in Atlanta, agrees that it’s vital for parents to protect their grandchildren — and themselves.
“We have to ask ourselves: What message do we want them to have about their grandparents? How can we protect them from feeling hurt and rejected? Because a child will notice differences in how their grandparents treat them versus maybe how their other grandparents act, or how their friends are treated, or what they see in books or TV. We have to also be careful about it,” she continues, “if we want them to be respectful of their grandparents. Little ears are big ears. They’re watching us as models.”
How to Improve Grandparent Relations
Sadly, some relationships will never be what we hope for, despite our best efforts. It is hard and often agonizing to come to accept — but there are ways to make it easier.
“If it’s not what you want, you’re not obligated to continue as you have,” Burkett says. “We have to take care of ourselves and our children. If the only time your children see their grandparents they’re not even engaging with their grandkids, you don’t have to accept that. You can stop going over there, stop maintaining it. That also models for kids that we take care of ourselves.”
Burkett also suggests reframing the situation can be helpful. “Ask yourself: what benefits might I be getting from this situation? Maybe the grandparents aren’t as involved as you wish they were, but at least you’re not struggling with the stress of overly involved grandparents.”
While it’s undeniably hard when relationships with relatives and in-laws aren’t fulfilling, it’s a clear reminder that family is not limited to blood. “Whether it’s a friend or a neighbor or an aunt, you can reach out to other people for the involvement you’re looking for,” Dolbin-MacNab says.
When it comes to ambivalent grandparents, we may not be able to have the kinds of relationships we hope for, but at least we can learn healthy ways to cope.