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Are You a Jealous Grandmother or Grandfather?

Non-Productive Emotions Can Create Family Conflict

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Portrait of grandmother and girl (4 - 5 y)
Uwe Krejci/Digital Vision/Getty Images

No one wants to be jealous. Jealousy is one of the most painful emotions to experience, no matter whether you are the target of the jealousy or the origin. "The jealous are troublesome to others, but a torment to themselves," William Penn wrote, and most of us know that to be true. It's especially disturbing when grandparents find themselves struggling with jealousy, because such feelings don't match with the conventional image of the benevolent grandparent or with the grandparenting roles that we aspire to play.

What Causes Jealousy?

Garden-variety jealousy, the one most often associated with romantic partners, is often caused by fear or insecurity. We may fear losing a loved one or feel insecure about their love. The jealousy experienced by grandparents is a little different.

Most grandparents love their grandchildren with a deep, unconditional love, yet there are all kinds of conditions put on how we express that love. Besides the barriers of time and distance that often restrict us, each grandchild comes with parents who feel that it is their right to govern their children. Grandparents know intellectually that this is so, yet it's a difficult spot to be put in. Our only previous experience with this type of love came with our own children, when we had all the power. We must learn to love in a whole different way.

Faced with limited access to our grandchildren and limited authority over them, we may be jealous of anyone who spends time with the grandchildren, time that surely could be better spent with us.

The Most Likely Targets

One might think that grandparents would be jealous of the parents. After all, they get to spend the most time with the grandchildren. But most grandparents still remember the hard work of parenting and its unrelenting nature. There's a reason why most grandparents adopt the credo, "Love them and send them home." They are seldom jealous of the parents, but the parents are about the only ones who are exempt.

The most likely targets are, of course, the other grandparents. Long-distance grandparents are especially likely to feel resentful if the other grandparents are closer in distance to the grandchildren.

With the increase in divorce and remarriage, many children are part of blended families that may give them an extra complement of grandparents. In addition, grandparents may have divorced and remarried. A particularly loaded situation occurs when an ex-partner is perceived to be the favored grandparent. If the ex-partner is remarried or with a new partner, the ante is upped. If the split-up is recent or poorly resolved, more volatile emotions will be added to the mix.

Great Aunts and Other Possibilities

Children who were close to their aunts and uncles as children are likely to remain so as adults. As a result, aunts and uncles sometimes become almost like surrogate grandparents. Aunts and uncles who do not have grandchildren, or whose grandchildren don't live nearby, are especially likely to assume such positions. If sibling rivalry has survived into adulthood, as it often does, having a brother or sister assume such a role with grandchildren can be terribly difficult. Grandparents also may resent nannies, sitters, neighbors and friends. Although we can be jealous of anyone, even someone that we love dearly, jealousy tends to be worse when we don't really like the other person.

What to Do

Jealousy is one of the hardest emotions to banish. Simply making a resolution not to be jealous very seldom works. Instead, try these four steps:

  1. Admit your feelings. Look at the objects of your jealousy and figure out if there are other factors at work.
  2. Acknowledge all of the good things in your life. Most of the time jealousy and envy are tied to feelings of missing out on something. Acknowledge the richness of your life.
  3. If in Step 2 you have difficulty coming up with lots of positives, work on increasing those. If you need more friends, more interests or more ways of being useful, those can be remedied outside of the family.
  4. Walk a mile in their shoes. Really look at the lives of those you envy. Chances are that they have trials and pain in their lives. Would you really trade places with them?
These steps will have to be gone through more than once. Overcoming jealousy is a process, not a one-time procedure.

What to Say

A grandparent who is struggling with jealousy may be tempted to confide in family members. They may especially feel the urge to confide in their own children, the parents of their grandchildren. This path is fraught with perils. If your child knows that you are jealous of someone else in your grandchild's life, it's unlikely that they are going to end the relationship, and you really wouldn't want them to do that. What is likely to happen instead is that they will start leaving you out of the loop. They may not tell you about what the grandchildren are doing and with whom. In the long run, you'll be more distant from your kids and grandkids. There are some parent-child relationships that are close enough to bear such revelations without damage, but grandparents should err on the side of caution. They should be especially cautious about confiding in other family members, which can easily lead to a lot of family drama. If you really need to talk to someone, choose a friend who doesn't have a relationship with other family members. And, of course, if your feelings become overwhelming, consider seeing a counselor.

Not the Same as Envy

Most dictionaries and experts distinguish between jealousy and envy. Jealousy is usually defined as resenting the person, whereas envy involves resenting the person's accomplishments or possessions. Obviously there can be overlap between the two emotions. The grandparent who is able to pay for two weeks in a pricey resort for the whole family may inspire both jealousy and envy. So what is a grandparent to do when another grandparent or surrogate has much more money to invest in the relationship?

Thankfully, for a good many years, children are blissfully unaware of the monetary value of things. They are likely to have as much fun with a bottle of bubbles as with an expensive electronic toy. They may enjoy trips to the neighborhood park as much as a visit to a theme park. Make the most of that time period. Build solid relationships with grandchildren, and model the importance of people over things, and it's unlikely that they will completely surrender to the siren song of the person with money. At a certain age, usually in the elementary school years, your grandchildren may seem to be overly impressed by people with money. Usually this is just part of their learning about their world. With a little time and guidance, they should put money back in its proper place in their world, as something important and necessary but not a substitute for people.

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