Your daughter won’t speak to you and because of that, you haven’t seen or heard from your grandbabies in over six months. You’ve sent them cards and gifts, but heard nothing back. When you try to contact them via phone or text, you don’t get an answer, and you have been blocked on her Facebook and Instagram. What’s a devoted grandparent to do?
I know that what I am about to suggest is probably furthest from your mind, but have you thought about simply respecting your daughter’s wishes rather than ignoring them? I know that sounds counter-productive, but the truth of the matter is that if you believed you had the wolf trying the blow your house down, would you be opening the door to him? Or would you be increasing and improving your defences?
Yes, I know, you don’t believe you are the wolf at the door, you are her parent and the grandparent of those darling children. You love them, you have their best interests at heart, and for some unfathomable reason, your own child has turned her back on you and slammed and locked the door! What can you do?
Whether your goal is access to your own child, the grandchildren, or both, the first thing you need to understand is that you cannot get what you want by further alienating your own child. She is the gatekeeper, the person who grants or withholds access to herself and to those precious grandbabies and without her cooperation, you get nowhere.
Okay, I know that some states have grandparent’s rights in their statutes but taking that route is ill-advised at best. First of all, it will permanently alienate the parent, your child—if you have any hope of repairing the relationship with your child, this will forever kill any possibility of that. Secondly, very few states have these laws and among those that do, the chances of you prevailing are very low—especially if the person you are suing is your own child. Finally, it will take a lot of money for your adult child to defend against such a suit, money that could be better spent taking care of those grandchildren—and that is a fact that will not be lost on the court. If you hope for a reconciliation—or at least to gain access to your grandchildren, then the image you portray is critically important, and presenting yourself to a court as a person who is willing impoverish the parent of your grandkids in order to get your own way is not going to polish your halo.
The first thing you must understand—and understand clearly—is that you are not entitled to a relationship with your grandchildren. You may not like that, you may not want to believe it, but your dislikes and disbeliefs don’t influence the truth of it. You have no right, either morally or legally, to insert yourself into another family’s life. Even in states that provide for grandparents’ rights, those rights are very narrow and circumscribed and the only grandparents who actually have to those rights are those who have successfully had them granted: prior to a court granting you those rights, they don’t exist. For the most part, access to the children of other people is a privilege granted to you by the parents or guardians of those children. And that privilege often comes with rules—i.e., no sweets, no snacks after a certain time, prescribed bedtimes or other things you may dislike or disagree with. The fact that you are the grandparent does not give you leave to disrespect the structure the child’s parents have created and if you do disrespect them—like trying to make a vegetarian child eat meat—the parents may limit or even end your ability to see the children, which is well within their rights.
You need to understand that you are not in control of the household of your adult child nor should you be. A lot has been discovered by doctors and scientists since the last time you and I were parenting young kids. Things we thought were harmless or normal have been discovered to be harmful; things we considered harmful—like “spoiling” a child with “too much” attention—have been found to be beneficial. Your way is not the only way to care for children, it may be far from the best way, and it’s not your call anyway. If you refuse to respect the parent’s instructions not only are they well within their rights to limit or even end your association with the kids, a court will most likely agree with them—and then instruct you to pay the other party’s legal costs.
Having been the parents and in charge for so many years, it may be difficult for you to accept that your children are now in control and you must take instruction from and obey them. You want to remain in control, as you have always been, but you can’t always get what you want: some things are simply beyond your grasp. You can’t lasso the moon, you can’t put Reagan back in the White House, and you can’t change another person to be who you want them to be or make them act the way you want them to act, not even your own adult child.
You can, however, change yourself. I am not saying that it is easy, but you can do it and, if you want to have a relationship with your estranged child and her children, that may very well be what you need to do. Some problems cannot be solved by throwing money, in the form of loans, gifts or lawyer’s and court fees, at them and resolving the issue of the alienated adult child is one of those problems that money not only cannot fix but may actually make worse.
You must also grasp that your perception of a situation or event is not the only one—there may be other, equally valid—in fact, even more valid—perceptions out there than your own. In other words, it is entirely possible that you are wrong about how you are seeing the situation. If you are not willing to accept that possibility, then you will be fighting an uphill battle. Just feeling or believing you are right is not enough: there was a time when we fervently believed in the existence of the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus, but later discovered they weren’t real. No amount of believing on our parts, however, conjured them up: we believed with our whole hearts and it wasn’t enough to make it so. And so it is with your perceptions—no how fervently you believe you are right, you may still be wrong and if you want access to your adult child and her children, you need to become intimately familiar with that concept.
You also need to understand that it is very unlikely that your adult child is going to simply capitulate to your demands, so you need to do some soul-searching and determine what it is you really want. Do you want to have your own way or do you want access to your child and/or grandchildren? Think about which is most important to you because they may very well be mutually exclusive: in order to have access to your child/grandchildren you are probably going to have to compromise and, by its very nature, compromise means giving up some of what you think you want. Ask yourself this: what am I willing to give up to just see the grandchildren for five minutes—just five minutes. If you aren’t willing to give up all of your demands and expectations to have just five minutes—and not necessarily five minutes alone—with them, then you want your own way more than you want to see those kids and that is going to work against you.
Perhaps the most important thing for you to understand is that adult children almost never cut off their parents without a) thinking about it for a long time; b) trying to get their parents to understand their issues; and c) trying to get their parents to work with them in resolving their issues. Too often I have had letters from estranged parents/grandparents lamenting their child having cut them off “suddenly and with no explanation” when, in fact, it was neither sudden nor was it unexplained.
Some of these estranged adult children have spent years—literally years—trying to get their parents to address issues only to have their issues minimized, dismissed or even laughed at. The fact that something is unimportant to you in no way means it is unimportant to others: an issue you have dismissed as “petty” may be of earth-shattering importance to your adult child and your dismissal is, at the very least, hurtful.
The most common complaint I hear from estranged adult children is a lack of respect from their parents. Before you get huffy and try to tell me that respect is “earned,” allow me to point out that that is a very disrespectful attitude to take. Everyone one on the planet is entitled to respect until they earn your DISrespect. You have no right to demand respect from anyone—including your children—if you do not give them respect up front.
If you believe that respect must be earned, tell me what have you done to earn respect from your adult kids? Do you even know what you need to do to earn that respect from them? Has is ever occurred to you that if you insist that respect is earned, then you need to earn the respect of others, including your own children, regardless of their age? Respect is a two-way street: you cannot legitimately expect it from others if you won’t to give it to them.
But you do respect your adult kids, you tell me. Do you really? If you really want to heal the rift in your family, then you have to understand what has upset your adult child and in order to do that, you have to put yourself in their shoes. Did you tell your daughter, without being asked for your help or opinion, that she was bathing her new baby wrong? Did you say “here, let me show you how to do that”? or did you say, instead, “you look like you’re having some trouble there. Can I help?” The first is disrespectful, the second is not. When you had your grandchildren overnight did you let them stay up past their bedtime? Did you let them eat cookies before dinner? Did you let them do anything that their parents said not to? Then you disrespected your children.
When it comes to their kids, the parents are the final authority even if you disagree right down to your very toes with them. These are not your children and this is not your decision or choice to make. Would you have left your children with people who ignored your wishes concerning your child’s diet or safety or obedience? Would you have been unhappy if you left your child with a family member and that person ignored your wishes in favour of their own? Suppose your family member liked watching porn and despite your admonition “no TV, movies or videos,” he let them not only watch videos, he let them watch a porn vid they found. Would you be upset? Would you let him baby sit again? (Hint: if you would allow it, you lack the proper judgment to be left in charge of children.)
So you shouldn’t be surprised that, when you violate the rules set down by your children with respect to their own children, your kids don’t want you minding their kids anymore.
“But it’s not porn,” you say after letting them stay up past their bedtime to watch a Disney film. Or, “It was just an ice cream and it was really hot that day and little Sonny really liked it,” after the parent told you no ice cream. What if Sonny was lactose intolerant or allergic to cow’s milk or has issues with blood sugar? His parents don’t have to tell you his medical history—that is none of your business. You have an obligation, like every other babysitter, to stick to the dictates of the child’s parents whether you agree or not, whether you like it or not, whether you want to or not. Deliberately going against the wishes of the parent of the child is a deep, lasting betrayal, guaranteed to damage the trust that parent has in you. The more often you do it, the more that trust is chipped away and if you have the audacity to try to defend yourself or, worse, try to make the parent feel like they are wrong, you are gouging huge chunks out of that parent’s trust.
You don’t care if the parent trusts you or not? Well, guess what got you into this situation, where you own child won’t speak to you and you can’t have any contact with your grandchildren? No parent worth the title exposes their children to people they cannot trust so if you destroyed your own child’s trust in you through your high-handed, disrespectful and entitled ways, your kid did what every self-respecting parent on the planet will do: cut you and your untrustworthy ways right out of their lives.
Perhaps you think your child is out of line by putting the grandchildren “in the middle.” Actually, it is you who are putting them in the middle by refusing to respect either their parents or their parents’ wishes. No child should have to witness their parents being treated disrespectfully nor should any child be cozened into taking part in behaviours that their parents disapprove of. It is you who are causing the rift by your simple act of believing you know better than the grandchild’s parents and acting like you have the right to override them and their authority. You don’t. And the parents are right to remove their children from being the centre of conflict and not allowing them to be treated like a bone caught between two fighting dogs. You have put those grandchildren in the middle by refusing to accede to their parents’ wishes and/or treating the parent(s) disrespectfully, and the parents have taken them out of the middle by removing them from the field of battle.
So let’s say you have finally—albeit reluctantly—come to the conclusion that it is your behaviour that prompted your child to remove your grandchildren from your life. And let’s further assume that you wish to make sincere amends so that you can see your grandchildren again. What now?
Well, like it or not, your child is now an adult and has an incontrovertible right to decide the conditions of her life—and in this regard, you have no rights whatsoever. None. Repeat that. Aloud. “I have no rights in this.” Repeat it over and over until you truly get it. You have NO rights in this, in your adult child’s life, in the lives of your grandchildren. You have no rights. None. Understanding this and accepting this is the first—and most essential—step in resolving the issue(s) that caused you to be denied contact with your grandchildren.
If you truly understand and accept this, then you also understand that any access to your adult children and grandchildren is a privilege and your adult child (or his/her significant other) is the only person who can grant you that privilege. And because they can grant it, they can also take it away. They have all of the rights here, not you. (And yes, again, I know about “grandparent’s rights” and also know that if you go that route you will never fix the problem that drove your child away, you will just entrench it permanently. See paragraphs 5 and 6.)
So what do you do when you want something from a person who has absolute power over giving it or withholding it? Why, you make sure this person sees you in a good light, right? Because if this person doesn’t, if this person is irritated with you, annoyed by you, afraid of you, doesn’t like you—if this person harbours any negative feelings towards you—the odds of you getting what you want start to slide, don’t they? So you need to be on this person’s good side, don’t you?
Your child is the gatekeeper to your grandchildren. So your adult child is the person whose good books you need to be in. How can you do that after you have already screwed it up so badly?
The very first thing you must do is to respect your child’s boundaries. All of them. Even the ones you don’t like or think are unfair. That includes the present boundaries set down by your child. This may seem counter-productive because respecting that boundary means going along with no contact with your grandchildren, the opposite of what you want. But if you don’t respect this boundary, you are proving to your child that you are not trustworthy and every bad thing she thinks about you is true.
Next, you have to get over yourself. That means you have to change. And that means starting to take on board the perspective of other people. You have been so busy justifying yourself and trying to get your child to understand and agree with you (or browbeating, guilt-tripping, intimidating and manipulating your child into capitulating) that you have completely missed the fact this this is not a one-way street. Your child is entitled to a position and a point of view and what’s more, she is the one who has the rights, not you! You are so accustomed to being the boss in your relationship with your child you didn’t see that not only did her body grow up, so did her psyche—and she acquired some new rights and you lost some old ones. Catch up—she isn’t ten anymore and you don’t have any rights over her!
Adult children do not just “break up” with their parents whimsically and for no reason. In my experience (with hundreds of people over a five+ year span of time), the vast majority of adult children who sever relations with their parents do it after long months—even years—of agonizing and soul searching. Often times they try to have discussions, they send letters and emails, they try to have conversations on the phone, all without feeling like their parents have heard them or have any empathy for the pain they are feeling. Because, believe me, very few adult children sever ties with their parents without going through a lot of pain en route to the decision. So the odds are, your child has tried numerous times to get through to you to no avail.
So start with the reasons your child stopped contact with you. And don’t claim you don’t know, either. Odds are that you have been told—probably countless times—what to stop doing, what to back off from, what upsets your kid. And the odds also strongly suggest that you have either ignored or dismissed whatever your child said. You have called it “over-reacting” or “childish” or denied it happened or tried to justify or rationalize why it—whatever “it” was—was ok. You didn’t listen and, most importantly, you did not take your child seriously. And then something happened—like you showed up at a party you weren’t invited to, or you presumed to dictate something to your child, or you said something rude or snide or did something sneaky or underhanded—or high-handed and disrespectful—and that was the last straw for your adult child. They stopped responding to you, they may even have sent you a letter that said to just stay away, you might even have received a letter from a lawyer telling you to stay away. Whatever it was, something you did or said was, for your child, the final insult, the final betrayal, and now your child wants nothing to do with you and does not want you influencing her child.
So go back over what has been said to you. Things you discounted or dismissed, things you found absurd or petty. Things you did not take seriously. Take them seriously now. Use the next few months to walk in your adult child’s shoes, to examine your entitlement, your expectations, your perspective. Did you think your child should have been grateful when you bought the grandchild new shoes but she was angry instead? What did you take away from that disagreement? Did you think “She’s spoilt and ungrateful and I was only trying to help and besides, she can’t afford the shoes Sissie wants and I can so what’s the big deal?”? Did you stop to put yourself in her position? What if she was thinking “I already told Sissie she couldn’t have those shoes so she’s sneaking behind my back and you are helping her—and she knows it will work because you have done this kind of thing before, buying stuff for my kid without asking me first. You are teaching my child to be manipulative because you won’t consult with me!” Or maybe she was thinking “I don’t want you to corrupt my child with ‘stuff.’ I don’t want her to value people for what they can give her but for who they are. I want you to let me decide what my child can and cannot have. That’s my job, not yours!”
Go over every instance you can remember—and if your child wrote you a letter about what you have said and done that has upset her, take her every instance—and try to see it from her point of view. Don’t excuse yourself with rationalizations—truly try to see things from her perspective. You gave your grandchild a bicycle and your daughter blew up—did you ask if you could give the child a bicycle? Did the kid say “somebody stole my bike” and you swooped to the rescue? Did you give the parent a chance to tell you that the child has had three bikes stolen because she leaves them on the front lawn, unlocked and unattended? Did you know that she is not allowed to have another one until she demonstrates better responsibility and now you have made your daughter the bad guy because she had to lock this one away in order to go on with the lesson in responsibility she is trying to teach?
Maybe you can’t come up with some reason where you were wrong. My guess would be that means you aren’t really trying. Did your daughter do something you didn’t like and you scolded her like a naughty child? Where do you get the right to do that to another adult? Have you made assumptions—she’s going on holiday so you’ll go to the same place, assuming you are welcome? Did you try to impose your will on her taste for her wedding or her first house or your grandchild’s nursery because you think you know better than she does or, worse, you contributed to the cost? Wrong move—her life, her choices, her tastes, not yours!
Once you have reached a point at which you fully understand why your adult child has reached the end of her rope and cut you off, you should be feeling remorse. And embarrassment. And shame. Because you really were out of line and you really did do things that disrespected her and her autonomy. If you’re not feeling that way, then you don’t really understand and you need to go back to the soul searching and seeking the evidence in yourself and your behaviours that make up the truth of your adult child’s removal of herself and her children from your life. Until you “get” what you did and why your kid is upset with you, you are not ready for the next step, and getting what your kid is trying to get across to you may take professional help—like a therapist—and months…even years…before you are truly ready for the next step. And do not take that next step if you aren’t really ready or you will permanently screw this up.
Once you can empathize with your adult child and you are in a headspace that says “Wow, I don’t blame her for cutting me off—I was awful to her!” you are in the right frame of mind to attempt a reconciliation. Start with a letter and start that letter with your first apology: apologize for disrespecting her boundary with the letter. That should be your very first sentence: “Let me begin by apologising for violating the boundary you set when you said you did not want to be in contact with me anymore. I have spent our estranged time really working on understanding your point of view and it is important to me to tell you that I finally get it…”
Then tell the truth—don’t try to make it sweet and palatable, don’t use euphemisms in an attempt to soften it. “I have been awful to you. I realize that now and I am truly sorry.” You should be feeling shame when you write this, and you should be feeling humility because after you eat a few bushels of crow, you are going to have to swallow that crow along with your pride and ask for forgiveness. And worse, you are going to have to acknowledge that she is under no obligation to either forgive or believe you and if she does either one, let alone both, you are incredibly lucky. Because this is an uphill battle that you created for yourself and nobody can fix it but you—and she has nothing to lose by telling you to fuck off and leave her alone. You have to go into this with that in the forefront of your mind and with acceptance of that in your heart: you screwed this up, you screwed it up really bad, and if there is any coming back from it, it is going to be from the goodness of her heart. You had better hope you haven’t crushed that out of her.
Don’t tell her what you are going to do—that presumes that you know what she wants and in the past that hasn’t worked very well for you, has it? Stick to apologising, giving examples of where you screwed up, what you did wrong, what you should have done, then saying you are sorry and then empathising with the feelings your behaviour provoked in her. Ask for things, don’t tell—stay away from phrases like “talking this out” because that proves you don’t get it—she doesn’t want to talk anything out, she doesn’t need to talk it out and besides, there is nothing TO talk out: if you think there is, you still don’t get it.
Resolving your adult child’s issues with you basically comes in the form of you backing off from trying to run things. You don’t get to tell her what she needs (to talk it out), you don’t get to put your needs (like your need to understand) ahead of hers. You don’t get to put the burden of your understanding on her, either—that is your responsibility. You are no longer at the helm of her life and it is past time for you to get out of the driver’s seat and hand control over to her. If you are not willing to do that, if you find yourself saying or thinking “yes, but…” as you read this, you don’t get it yet, you aren’t ready to approach your estranged adult child, you need to shed some more of your effrontery and eat some more of that crow because if you don’t and you approach your child with a “yes, but...” mindset, I guarantee that you will cock it up and you will not get a second chance to fix this.
So, let’s say you’ve sent a letter and it has been favourably received. Is it all better now? Um, no—you have only just succeeded in getting her to give you an opportunity to prove to her that you have changed. The kind of change she is looking for is permanent—it means, in some ways, that you must become a different person than you have heretofore been. It means you cannot pretend to have changed in her presence, then go back home and bitch about what a bitch she has become or how incompetent she is to manage her affairs or how stupid she is to still be hooked up with that loser husband of hers. It means that you respect her choices even when you don’t agree with them. It means no passive aggressive remarks like “well, I guess is it your choice…” with a disapproving or sulky demeanour or tone. It means respecting her and her choices and loving her regardless of your disapproval or disappointment in choices she makes, especially things political or personal/lifestyle oriented. The only time your disapproval has any validity is if the situation is potentially life threatening, like a drug-fuelled lifestyle in which the children are exposed and even then, your place is not to condemn her, it is to support an effort on her part to change and see to the safety to your grandchildren through proper channels. Beware of using this manipulatively, however, by levelling false charges, because even if the authorities don’t come back on you for misusing the justice system, your estranged adult child will very likely become permanently estranged from you as a result. You will have proven yourself untrustworthy in the worst possible way and it is unlikely you will be able to recover from that.
The truth is, most parents from whom adult children become estranged are unwilling to humble themselves in the ways required to create a new, healthy, appropriate and respectful relationship with their estranged adult child. What they really want is to have their cake and eat it too: they want their adult child to resume the role they set up for her when she was a child and they want unfettered and uncontrolled access to their grandchildren. These people believe their estranged adult child is wrong and refuse to even address the possibility that they are the ones who are wrong. They therefore refuse to make any effort to change, instead making attempts to “talk through” an estrangement which is really just a euphemism for getting the adult child in a position where she cannot fight back and then browbeating her into submission and a return to her original role, a role in which you are in control of her life and she remains subordinate to you.
If you are thinking things like “I want my family back” and “things were fine until…” then you still don’t get it and your attempts at reconciliation will be viewed as disrespectful violations of the boundaries she set and unwanted intrusions into her private life. Only when you have given up the desire to put things back the way they were do you have any hope of resuming a relationship with your estranged adult child and those grandchildren because “the way things were” is exactly what hurt her and drove her away in the first place.
And just to be clear, that estranged adult child may well be a son rather than a daughter. And if you blame your daughter-in-law for causing the rift, if you believe that anything other than your own behaviour and lack of awareness of and empathy for your child’s feelings caused the split, then you need to go back to the beginning of this post and start reading all over again.
You broke this and if there is even a hint of a chance that it can be fixed, then it will only happen through you making serious changes in the way you (and your partner/spouse) view and treat your estranged adult child. And if you don’t want to do that, if you think you don’t need to change or it is too much work or you are too old, then what you are really saying is that you care more for your convenience than the happiness and well-being of your adult child and his/her immediate family.
And you know what? That is okay! What is not okay is hurting your adult child with your disrespect. Stick to your own way if you wish, but respect your adult child’s autonomy and leave her/him alone.