For some grandparents, the announcement of the birth of a grandchild means new life, new hope, and renewed dreams. Oftentimes a strong energy is sparked within those middle-aged hearts to be someone grand to someone so small and vulnerable. We’ve all seen the doting, bragging grandparent ripping off reams of pictures from the old tattered wallet. Their pride and joy can be contagious. But then, there are those grandparents who tend to bring drama and conflict. They are meddlesome and undermining. Regardless of the type of grandparents your children have, if you are the ex-in-law it may be difficult to determine your role in staying in touch with your ex’s family. The crux of the matter here is how the grandparents impact your kids. So how involved with the grandparents do you and your children need to be? Use these three guiding questions to help you decide
1. Is the relationship between your children and the grandparents VIBRANT?
According to experts who have studied the relationships of grandparents and grandchildren, there is an “intergenerational solidarity” that can be healthy. It is a vibrant interaction between the young and the old, an exchange of ideas and learning that happens between grandparent and grandchild. Teaching flows up and down the generational chain and growth happens for both. Vibrancy in this relationship is also defined by emotional bonding. Often the emotional closeness is fostered by physical proximity, but not always. The point here is whether the grandparents intentionally reach out to connect to their grandchildren. Calling, Skyping, long-distance visits should be meant to connect with the grandchildren. This may come as a disruption to you as the primary parent, but remember the point is not about the level of annoyance you feel; it’s about the grandparents’ intention to bond with the kids. Another marker of a vibrant relationship between grands is how much fun they’re having. For most children, their first loves are parents, siblings, and friends in that order. Grandparents generally rate lower on the love totem pole because they are out of sight and therefore out of mind. Additionally, when a child shows love for someone, it often has to do with how they feel around that person and whether or not that person plays with the child. Thus, it stands to reason that grandparents who play with and enjoy their grandchildren are beloved by those children. To summarize, a vibrant grandparent-grandchild relationship is one with mutual learning, intentional attempts to connect, and fun.
2. Is the relationship between your children and the grandparents VALUABLE?
Some families expect that there will be connection with grandparents; it’s normal, no matter the circumstance. They see the relationship as culturally important. Others may value this relationship because of tradition. The normalcy of the grandparent relationship is something to take notice of. How many grandparents were in your life and able to visit? To whom did you give a special name (Poppy, Paw Paw, Granny, Nanna)? How strange would it be to imagine life without these folks while you were growing up? Or were grandparents missing from your childhood? The answers to these questions give a window to the value you place on your ex-in-laws as grandparents. The presence or absence of your grandparents indicates how important it is to keep your ex-in-laws in your children’s lives. The roles of and emotional bonds with your grandparents give guidance to how essential and valuable it is to maintain relationship or deal with conflict as it relates to your children’s grandparents.
3. Is the relationship between your children and the grandparents VITAL?
For many families, grandparents are a great resource, economically, socially, and culturally. Grandparents play the roles of surrogate parents, funders and fundraisers for kids’ social and academic lives, and they are pillars of family history. Grandparents are sometimes the only link children will have to their heritage and family stories. Grandparents are often the safety net that parents need to help them raise good, responsible, well-protected children. They stand-in for parents at the games and recitals; they file through the school traffic circle picking-up and dropping-off; they provide restaurant outings when parents’ paychecks prioritize home-cooked Hamburger Helper. Many grandparents are simply vital to a child’s existence. This may be the case with your ex-in-laws and may make it worth the effort it takes to stay involved with them.
Families that experience break-ups can be a real challenge for parents and children to handle. But the point of family is relationship and community. If the people you call family are contributing to the vibrancy of your children, then keep them around. If they are people you think are valuable and essential to the make-up of your family, then find ways to tolerate their drama. If they are vital to the existence and even the thriving you desire for your children, then they are probably worth the effort it takes to keep them close. If these folks are none of these things and only bring conflict and difficulty, then you might want to reconsider just how close they should be to you and your children.
Kisa McKinney is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist trained in family systems and psychodynamic psychology. She is dedicated to helping individuals discover, accept, and bring a whole cultivated person to every relationship. She has worked to support hundreds of individuals and families improve interpersonal relationships since 1998. She believes gaining insight can cause transformative action in every life. Proud of the influence and growth she has facilitated amongst families, women, the LGBTQ community, and couples, she has a practice in Farmington Hills, MI and is accepting new clients. (CLICK HERE to explore working with Kisa.)