Grandparents a Balancing Act

An Interview with Clinical Psychologist and Family Therapist - Dr. Miriam Tisher

When a marriage ends, there can be repercussions, for the whole family. Your Life spoke with clinical psychologist and family therapist Dr. Miriam Tisher about the relationships between grandparents, parents, and grandchildren.

YL: We hear stories about grandparents being estranged from their grandchildren when a marriage ends. Is this common?

Miriam Tisher: I don't see it commonly in my practice. I take it we're talking about an acrimonious ending, which is a particular form of a relationship break-up. The important question to me is: What does it all mean? What would make a parent want to cut the relationship between the children and their grandparents? It's probably a fair bet to say the hurt of the parent is running this.

He or she must be hurting very substantially.

Let's speculate on the feelings of the parent in that situation [acrimonious ending of a marriage]. There will probably be anger, fear, and maybe shame.

If you're a parent in that situation, and you cut the relationship between your children and their grandparents, maybe you think it will put pressure on your partner.

You may not want your parents-inlaw to see their grandchildren. You may feel they won't approve, or may influence the children to side with the other parent.

The parent is at issue. Often what's seen by the grandparents as strength and power [a parent preventing grandchildren from seeing them] is hurt and vulnerability and trying to survive.

The grandparents are seeing rejection and exclusion, but if a parent feels strong and secure, they won't need to exclude.

YL: What can in-laws do to make parents feel strong and secure?

Miriam Tisher: That's the core of the issue. The primary system for any child is the parents. Parents need to be feel good about themselves and strong enough to parent effectively. Grandparents have to feel good about themselves also. They've got a lot invested in their grandchildren.

They invest their future, their sense of mortality.

I have a model for thinking about family relationships. It's a mobile, you know, like the mobiles that hang in children's rooms. It's made up of several pieces, each connected to the other in a definite pattern, but the pieces may vary in shape, colour, or size. The important feature of all mobiles is that they balance. If a piece is added, if a piece is moved or changed, it creates a disturbance and the parts will settle only when a new equilibrium, a new balance point, is found.

YL: In that mobile, a baby is a new piece. And grandparents are part of the mobile, too, aren't they?

Miriam Tisher: When a child is born to a couple, they need to re-balance their relationship while integrating their family of origin — that is to say, their family history, culture, and expectations. Religion provides a good example of the need to rebalance and integrate — a couple from different religions think the differences don't matter because they love each other. Until a child comes along, it may not be an issue. And suddenly there are many issues. That's not the only example, of course.

It is a challenge for couples to establish their relationship with the child and their parents.

The most critical time in a relationship is a year or two after the last child has been born, but sometimes the stresses start much earlier.

YL: How important is the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren?

Miriam Tisher: It's an affirmation of the family roots, the history and traditions. In an ideal world, it's a nice thing. But the relationship is not always nice — relationships between grandparents and grandchildren can be difficult, too. An example of the difficult relationship might be where grandchildren feel they are not living up to grandparents' expectations or feel they are being compared unfavourably with other grandchildren.

YL: What about the number of grandparents who care for their grandchildren?

Miriam Tisher: Increasingly, for many working parents the grandparents are a part of the care arrangements. The expectations are sometimes onerous.

Sometimes the grandparents become the carers if a parent is sick or otherwise unable to care for the child or children, and they often do it with a mixture of resentment and commitment.

YL: Within the framework of relationships between grandparents, a parent or parents, and children, what makes things go right?

Miriam Tisher: Other things being equal, there are a number of them. Modelling (that is, a good model of behaviour), open communication, a sense of self and self esteem, financial security, and health.

As far as financial security is concerned — well, poverty makes everything worse.

Ill health and illness can be a problem. It can be the health of anyone, the grandparents, the parents or the children. For example, if you have a child in the family who has a chronic condition — like juvenile diabetes, but it could be anything — then there is the possibility of seeing that as something to be accepted and lived with, or something that's to be hidden, something shameful. Or it could be a grandparent with dementia, whom the grandchildren don't want to see. These are often the issues for the sandwich generation — how to deal with acting-out teenagers and ailing parents.

There's a whole range of attitudes to illness, which are in turn affected by how much community support there is.

Being able to talk about the difficulties, being able to communicate — it's very important.

I recommend that when people have been offended, they try to separate the intent from the behaviour. "Do you think they're trying to hurt you?" A very simple example is the grandparent who brings a pot of soup. The pot of soup is meant to help, to lighten the cooking load, but sometimes the daughter-in-law might see it as a message about her supposed shortcomings as a cook, and is offended. It's important for the grandparent bringing the food to say: "Let's talk about this. Is it all right if I bring soup?"

YL: Who helps grandparents to get it right? There's not much support for grandparents, no classes in grandparenting. When there are problems in the relationships, grandparents should be able to get some help. Where do grandparents get help?

Miriam Tisher: The GP or psychologist/family therapist is the first port of call. Counselling is the best way to start the helping process. This can begin with the grandparent or any other family member. Stressful situations can be discussed, difficult, repetitive interactions can be considered and new strategies can be suggested.

Gradually other family members can be included as appropriate.

Sometimes if levels of anxiety or depression are high and there is sleep disturbance, medication may be considered by the GP to assist also.