Stepfamilies and grandparents

How you can help children be close with grandparents and step-grandparents

Grandparent’s role in a stepfamily

We take a look at the issues for grandparents and step grandparents

Stepfamilies and grandparents 474

Many people feel unsure of the role grandparents and step grandparents play in stepfamilies. During divorce, separation or remarriage, grandparents, like the children, do not have much of a say in the changes which take place. Yet they may be involved in providing considerable support. Grandparents and step grandparents can be advocates for their grandchildren – understanding their challenging behaviour, helping them to understand decisions made on their behalf by their parents, and helping parents to see their children’s point of view.

What are the issues for grandparents and step grandparents?

Grandparents can provide practical support at times of family change and upheaval, but they may find this hard. Many may have thought that they had got to a stage in their lives where they no longer had to care directly for children.

Being a step grandparent is not the same as being a grandparent – there is no biological connection. It takes time to develop affection, responsibility and loyalty. It is a complicated role and has to be negotiated with all the other family members some of whom may seem very distant. For all the adults involved the welfare of the children should be the priority.

How much support can a grandparent give without interfering?

This is the classic grandparent dilemma, and there are no easy answers. Grandparents and step grandparents may have very strong views about how their children are behaving in relation to their grandchildren and step grandchildren, so attempts at support can be charged with emotion for all concerned. Grandparents should try to focus on the needs of all the children, and try to provide help that is wanted, rather than help that they may want to give. If a grandparent is unsure of what to offer, or hurt because your offers are rejected, they may want to talk to someone neutral and can speak to one of the Family Support workers at the Charity Family Lives (details below).

Should the grandparents related to the non-resident parent retain contact with their grandchildren? 
If at all possible, contact should be maintained. Children need the reassurance that not all the adults in their lives are changing their roles and relationships with them. Children need to know that their grandparents still love them. Contact may be especially important if a parent or stepparent has died. This can be difficult for all the adults to recognise as they struggle with their own grief.  Research shows that children do need reminders of their parent who has passed away, especially of their positive qualities, and do need to be allowed to talk about that parent.
Research suggests that children’s adjustment to family upheaval can be helped by the presence of a loving, fair and supportive adult in their lives. Grandparents and step grandparents are well placed to take this role.

How will contact be arranged?

Grandparents shouldn’t feel afraid to take the first step. At times of family upheaval parents find it complicated enough to get on with their daily life, let alone make arrangements which may involve travel. 

Should step grandparents treat grandchildren and step grandchildren the same?

Ideally yes! Think of it from the children’s point of view.  How would it feel if birthday presents are bigger for your grandchildren than for step grandchildren? What impact would it have on the family relationships?

More complicated issues arise over inheritance. Some people have strong feelings about wanting only their birth children and their grandchildren to inherit from them. Alternatively, you may wish to treat both grandchildren and step grandchildren equally. Either way you need to make a will and if possible, explain your thinking to your children. A family lawyer can advise on the legal issues for stepfamilies. Remember, there is no automatic provision for stepchildren or step grandchildren.
You also need to think about the situation from the opposite perspective. What if you become frail or unwell or need help? What support would you hope for from your stepchildren and step grandchildren?

  • Do remember that all children need love, reassurance and continuity at times of change and uncertainty, so stay in touch.
  • Do treat all children fairly and take pride in step grandchildren’s achievements as well as in your grandchildren’s achievements.
  • Do allow time for new relationships to develop.
  • Do seek help and advice – it shows that you are taking your concerns seriously.
  • Don’t think that stepfamily life is easy – it isn’t.
  • Don’t think forming a stepfamily is second best – it is a new family and offers the hope of new relationships and closeness for adults and children.
  • Don’t believe all the myths about stepmothers and stepfathers – many stepparents work hard to provide a loving and caring family environment for the children.

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Bounty is proud to bring you this information in partnership with Family Lives is a charity with over three decades’ experience helping parents to deal with the changes that are a constant part of family life.  

Comments on this article are monitored but NOT answered. However, Family Lives has extensive advice on their website, live chat services, and information about befriending services and parenting/relationship support groups.  There is also a helpline and an online community forum offering a safe space for families to share dilemmas, experiences and issues with others who understand the ups and downs of family life.

Stepfamilies and grandparents