Grandparent alienation is a type of elder abuse, a term for the mistreatment of older people in a society. It occurs when grandparents are unreasonably denied meaningful opportunities to have a relationship and spend time with their grandchildren. It can vary from not being invited to a birthday party right through to no contact with the grandchild at all over a protracted period of time.
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Grandparent alienation often involves grandparents being stopped from having contact with their grandchildren. However, it can manifest in different ways, such as:
withholding, or threatening to withhold, contact with the grandchildren unless the grandparents agree to provide financial or other support in exchange—for example, you can only see the grandchildren if you pay their school fees or provide childminding (financial and psychological abuse like this is known as ‘coercive control’)
limiting grandparents’ access to the children to times that suit only the parent(s)
allowing only fleeting contact with the grandchildren when they are with the non-custodial parent after a family separation
not including contact with grandparents and other significant family members in parental contact arrangements under Children’s Court orders (without this, the children ultimately lose their sense of connection to their wider family)
emotional blackmailing—making statements like, ‘If you really loved your grandchildren, you would recognise that we need the family home more and find somewhere else to live’
saying negative things about the grandparents to (or in front of) the children
bullying the grandparents into making a succession plan that the parents want by threatening that they won’t see the children again if they don’t agree
parents with ‘inheritance impatience’ blocking contact between children and grandparents to try to get their inheritance sooner.
There are many factors and causes (‘drivers’). In extreme cases, it can arise from the children’s parent(s) having their own personal challenges, such as poor mental health, substance abuse, or even criminal convictions for child abuse behaviours. When assisting with cases of grandparent alienation, support practitioners are required to conduct risk assessments, and these will take note of such drivers to help determine how and what interventions will be appropriate.
Other drivers include unresolved trauma or conflict between the family generations, resulting in the children’s parents acting in a way that they believe is protective of the children or wanting to ‘punish’ the grandparents. Unfortunately, the grandchildren suffer the consequences.
Here are examples of unresolved trauma/conflict drivers contributing to grandparent alienation:
Grandparents turn up to the children’s school events, but the parent becomes aggressive and tells them to stay away because ‘You never bothered to attend my school events, so why attend your grandchild’s?’
A parent lacks trust in the grandparents because of their own feelings of being let down when they experienced abuse in childhood, so they believe that it’s best to keep the grandparents at a distance to protect the children.
Adult sibling rivalry leads to accusations such as ‘You spend more time with their children than with mine!’
Relationship stresses and breakdowns develop when, because of the COVID pandemic, the parents and children move back in with the grandparents.
Sometimes, differences in individual understandings of what a ‘family’ is cause conflicts that contribute to grandparent alienation. The misunderstandings could be situations like:
expectations of the grandparent’s role in the family differing, perhaps for cultural or religious reasons—the conflict first arises between the parents and eventually extends to the grandparents, until the relationships break down
grandparents having the best of intentions and wanting to support the children’s parents, but the parents having other ideas on what, how and when this support should be provided and determined
grandparents losing contact with the children following parental separation, because the primary carer parent moves away and/or doesn’t value their former in-laws’ role as grandparents
blended families experiencing a sense of competition between biological and non-biological grandparents.
Whatever the reasons for the alienation, the effects can be catastrophic on a family, particularly on the affected grandparents.
Ideas about the meaning of ‘family’ began to change following the years of mass migration to Australia in the 1960s and 1970s.
Previously, in many traditional societies, raising children was regarded as a community responsibility—a similar concept to today’s idea that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’.
The traditional sense of ‘family’ was one of extended family. Often, 3 generations lived in the same household.
They also often had aunties living next door and lots of close family friends who were called ‘aunty’ and ‘uncle’.
However, as these wide sources of involvement and support were left behind, the concept of a family eventually shifted.
A ‘nuclear’ family structure of father, mother, and siblings became more common. There was no extended family in the household and no extra aunties and uncles to share responsibility.
While, in time, one-parent and same-sex parent families also became common, they also generally lacked the extended family network.
Gradually the idea that parents, rather than a community or extended family, were solely responsible for the children became established, as a result, parents now expect to govern the contacts their children can have.
It can leave grandparents isolated, anxious, depressed, angry and frustrated. In effect, they are grieving for the living. This can also be called ambiguous grief.
Grandparents can in turn become isolated from their peers as they retreat from conversations about their friends’ grandchildren, or indeed are not included by friends as they know it is upsetting if they talk about their positive relationships.
If it results in a face-to-face confrontation, they can be physically abused.
If they feel forced into making certain decisions to prevent the alienation escalating, it can result in unpaid loans, giving away substantial sums of money and putting up with untenable co-living arrangements.
In some situations where the grandparent is forced to make a court application, it can result in long term fracturing of family relationships.
It’s difficult to measure, because it’s not a topic many grandparents talk about.
Sometimes they aren’t willing or comfortable to discuss their situation with others.
Often, feelings of shame and guilt associated with a family separation make it hard to speak up.
Even though they ‘suffer in silence’, alienated grandparents grieve the loss of their family unit, their grandchildren, and the opportunity to spend time with them and see them grow and develop.
Ultimately, grandparents simply want the opportunity to develop and maintain loving relationships with their grandchildren. They want to support them and be involved in their lives.
Under the Family Law Act 1975, which is focused on the child’s best interests, children have the right to develop and maintain meaningful relationships with their parents, grandparents and other adults, if it is safe for them to do so. However, when this is not happening, children are generally unable to do anything about it and it may fall to the grandparents to act.
Grandparents cannot apply for parenting orders without having attempted mediation, and to do this they can engage with Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) practitioners or the federally funded Family Relationship Centres. However, FDR costs money and the centres often have long waiting lists, so this is not always a quick and affordable option.
If mediation (once attempted) is unsuccessful, the FDR practitioner can issue a certificate enabling the grandparents to take the matter to court. However, going to court is an expensive process with no guarantee of achieving the outcome the grandparents want.
In addition, grandparents are often reluctant to take the matter to court for fear of irreparable damage to the relationship with the children’s parent(s).
A better option is elder mediation. This is an intervention strategy for elder abuse (which includes grandparent alienation), and it’s available in trial sites across Australia as well as private mediation practices.
Elder mediation enables the practitioner to work with the family in a more therapeutic and personal way than legal avenues do.
Elder mediation provides time to establish trust between the family members.
With a focus on the children’s best interests, elder mediation tries to find the drivers of grandparent alienation in a particular case, work out what has happened, identify the effects on all family members, and determine a path forward that everyone agrees to.
While elder mediation can’t result in a legally binding agreement, it does help to resolve the underlying factors contributing to grandparent alienation and improves the relationships between parents, grandparents and grandchildren.
By working with the causes, elder mediation can provide a practical, effective solution to grandparent alienation.
If there is an Elder Abuse trial site located nearby, contact them to find out how elder mediation might be able to help. For locations, contact Relationships Australia by visiting their website or calling 1300 364 277.
Try to talk with the children’s parents, if it’s at all possible. Be open, honest, and willing to listen to the parents’ side of the story. But also be prepared to say what has happened and how it has affected both you and the grandchildren. Look for middle ground and seek realistic steps back to the grandparent role, such as occasional scheduled visits.
Take time to reflect on how your own behaviour may have contributed to the current situation, and be prepared to listen to the parents’ point of view.
If you’re able to, maintain contact with the grandchildren via social media and keep sending birthday gifts with notes. Avoid criticising the parents or discussing the adults’ conflict with the grandchildren—doing so can make things worse.
It can be very difficult if you are unable to find, or don’t know, where the grandchild(ren) live or what their living arrangements are. If this is the case, we strongly encourage you to contact a professional counsellor to help you manage the intense grief and loss that may arise in these circumstances.
If the grandchildren’s parents are separating, discuss with them how the grandparent relationship will continue. If one parent is seeking a parenting agreement, encourage them to consider including arrangements for the children to spend time with their grandparents.
Similarly, if a new grandchild is about to arrive, discuss with the parents how they see your role as grandparent. Make no assumptions: ask what their expectations are for care provision, discipline, shared holidays, birthday celebrations, religious beliefs. Suggest setting up trial arrangements at first.
Take the higher road—let the parents and the grandchildren know you love them, regardless of the conflict.
Remember to nurture your relationship with your own partner. Too often, the grandparent alienation issues take over all aspects of your life and your own primary relationship may suffer.
Above all, no matter what you try, always remember to ask yourself, ‘How is my behaviour/this situation impacting the children?’ Model the family communications and relationships that you want your grandchildren to emulate in their own lives.