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Planning Retirement Online

Grandparents do make a difference - 5

October 2009



Each month we bring you this special column on grandparenting written by our expert contributor Jeanne Davis.

Jeanne will be covering a wide range of related topics in future editions of   If you have a subject you would like covered by Jeanne, please email us at:



By Jeanne Davis

When your child’s relationship with their spouse falls apart, your role as a grandparent invariably becomes more important than you may have ever anticipated. Separation and divorce for the couples wreaks anger and pain, bitterness and acrimony. Your heart aches for your daughter or for your son. Your children need you, but so do your grandchildren. Their world disintegrates around them. Research studies show that a majority of the grandchildren turn to grandparents for support, valued particularly as a source of time, attention and reassurance. Their homes are viewed as ‘safe’ or ‘neutral’ territory in which to take refuge from what was happening at home. Moreover, children’s accounts of closeness to their grandparents were related to fewer adjustment problems.

But for reasons beyond your control you may find you can no longer be as central to their lives. A Yours magazine survey showed that although 74% of grandparents continue to see their grandchildren, a quarter have little or no contact with them anymore: 17% of grandparents hardly ever see them and around one in ten don’t see them at all (nine%).

Custody and Contact

Not surprisingly, maternal grandparents will have more contact. The daughters usually have custody, the sons less frequently. Heather, a paternal grandparent, has two daughters and one son. The girls are in stable relationships; her son, though, has been married and divorced twice. The first wife, an American, took the two children from London to the United States, to her home in Pennsylvania. She didn’t write to Heather, nor send photos. But Heather always sent birthday presents to the grandchildren, which were occasionally acknowledged. Heather decided “to be easy” about the paucity of contact. She didn’t rail against her daughter- in-law though she didn’t like her very much. “I thought it would happen sometime that the grandchildren would want to get to know me.” Just last year, the 19-year-old girl came to London, visited with Heather and is now enrolled at university in England.

When her son’s second marriage broke up, his wife took the children to Leeds. Every few months, the daughter-in-law and the grandchildren, now six and eight, come to London for a long weekend visit with Heather. Her son comes and stays, too. Heather says of her relationship with the children “we are somewhat close and they are huggable.” Her relationship with her daughter- in- law is amicable.

Shared Custody

When there is shared custody both sets of grandparents find that maintaining contact is usually less fraught. Iris, a Bristol grandmother, has three daughters. Two are now divorced from their spouses. The youngest daughter and her former spouse share custody. The children spend every other weekend, Thursday to Monday morning, with their father and the holidays such as Christmas and New Year are rotated every year. The granddaughters, now seven and ten, enjoy time with the paternal grandparents during their father’s weekend and time with Iris on the other weekends. The middle daughter also was able to arrange shared custody and a similar pattern has been followed.

Taking Sides

Grandparents of separating children need to be wary of taking sides even though they may feel strongly that their child has been grossly wronged and subjected to unwarranted suffering. Angry accusations during the turmoil of deciding to separate and during divorce proceedings will often lead to limited contact and even to no contact at all.

When grandmother Joan stepped in and told Bobby and Lisa that they “weren’t trying hard enough,” Lisa said that Joan was accusing her of being an uncaring wife, thoughtless about Bobby’s needs and caring only for her own career. That she didn’t have “supper ready for him when he came home at night” showed how selfish she was. And only a cold and uncaring mother would take the children to a child minder while she went off to work. Joan refused to recognise that Lisa was working to help Bobby get started in a new business.

When they divorced, Lisa refused Joan access to the two girls. Eventually Bobby persuaded Lisa to let him take the children to Joan for visits. The grandchildren had missed Joan ‘terribly.’ Now, at least, they can be with her two or three times a year and they do talk to each other on the phone and by email.

But no matter what you do or how you behave, there are situations where grandparents will be denied all contact. The only recourse left may be going to court. Grandparents have no automatic legal right of access to their grandchildren.

For advice on staying in touch with grandchildren after divorce, contact the Grandparents’ Association helpline. For details see the box below.



The Grandparents’ Association helpline offers advice for grandparents on staying in touch with grandchildren after divorce. 

A helpline assistant explains. “We can try to get communication going again.  As a last resort we offer advice on how to take legal action to try to get access.  We can give you details of specialist lawyers in your area who are members of the Grandparents’ Association Lawyer list.”

For more details call the helpline 0845 4349585 (Monday-Friday, 10am to 4pm) or visit


Previous articles in the series:

1. Grandparents do make a difference
2. When Grandparents are on duty
3. To Discipline or not
4. The long Distance Grandparent
5. When the parents separate


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