If you are a grandparent, there's a significant chance that you are also, or eventually will be, a stepgrandparent. Stepfamilies, sometimes known as blended families, are ubiquitous in modern life. Researchers estimate that about 43% of all marriages involve at least one adult who has been married previously, also estimating that around two-thirds of those remarriages involve children from the prior marriage, forming stepfamilies or blended families. An important but often overlooked ingredient in these modern blended families is the stepgrandparent.
Step relationships in general are more complex and difficult to maneuver through than primary marital and parenting relationships; however, millions of people will testify to the important roles that various steps have played in their lives. Stepgrandparents are often included in this testimony. A 1989 study reports that most stepgrandchildren consider the stepgrandparent relationship important, are eager for more contact with stepgrandparents and maintain the relationship past high school.
A person can become a stepgrandparent through several different routes. The most common is being the parent of a child who marries someone who already has children. Another route is by marrying someone who has grandchildren. In both cases, the following strategies may ease any tensions that exist and should promote bonding.
Advice for Stepgrandparents
- Don't push it. Don't expect to develop a relationship overnight. Don't blame yourself if you don't immediately bond with stepgrands. Give yourself and them plenty of time. On the other hand, a relationship can't be put off indefinitely or it will become less and less likely. Research indicates that the older the grandchild, the less likely he or she is to develop a close relationship with the stepgrandparent.
- Don't try to buy their love. Do include your stepgrandchildren in gift-giving occasions and sometimes buy them gifts spontaneously if that is your practice. But do not be extravagant and do not have gift in hand each time you see the stepgrandchildren, unless you see them very rarely.
- Stay out of family conflicts. Obviously there are circumstances where neutrality is difficult, but giving your opinion when it is not asked for is almost certain to offend. No matter how warmly you are accepted during tranquil times, during times of stress you may become an outsider again, especially if you offer an unsolicited opinion.
- Treat stepgrandchildren fairly. If you have biological grandchildren, it is unlikely that you will immediately treasure your stepgrandchildren as much as the grandchildren with whom you have already bonded. You should, however, have a relationship with all of your grandchildren and strive to hide any differences in the way you feel about them. Sometimes it helps to take grandchildren on outings individually so they do not have to compete for attention.
- Let the child choose your grandparent name. Don't force them to call you one of the traditional names. First names are acceptable in some families. If they are not acceptable in your family, using a grandparent name with a first name, such as Papa Jim, is a good solution.
- Don't force displays of affection. Don't cajole stepgrandchildren to hand out kisses or hugs. It's okay to ask, "Do you want to give me a hug?" or "Do you have a kiss for me?" but the child should be able to accept or decline physical signs of affection.
Even if stepgrandparents follow these guidelines, conflicts may still arise because of differences in how the generations perceive the grandparenting role. Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem married her second husband when they each had one grandchild; they now have eleven grandchildren between them. She points out some of the potential conflicts.
I too often experience the parents as wanting what they want and not looking at what might be fun for the child or the grandparent. Parents today are also fear-based due to threats of abduction, etc., that are so evident in the media. I meet many grandparents who feel their children are too controlling, so time with grandchildren is not as unstructured as it once was.
In spite of the pitfalls, sincere effort on the part of stepgrandparents often results in a close relationship with both stepchildren and stepgrandchildren. That has been the experience of Trisha Torrey, who married a man with two sons and three grandsons and who recently acquired a new stepgranddaughter.
When my daughter-in-law was told her labor needed to be induced, she called and asked me to come stay with their little boys--not her mother, not my stepson's mother who, of course, is also my husband's ex--me! I was floored, flattered and thrilled. So I drove the four hours to their home, stayed for four days while she was in the hospital and for the first day she was home, played with my little grandsons, got to hold "my" first newborn grandbaby (for hours!) and came home - exhausted but happy..
Our guest stepgrandparents contributed via email. Thanks to:
- Trisha Torrey, the About.com Guide to Patient Empowerment
- Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem M.Ed., a Registered Marriage and Family Therapist