Alienating Grandparents Hurts Grandchildren

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November 28th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Newsweek writer Sharon Begley’s recent piece An Evolutionary Edge: How grandmas may play favorites touched off some debate about the merits of her understanding of genetics. While complaints about oversimplified explanations of genetics may or may not be accurate, what’s more important to me is that Begley points out that grandchildren can benefit from the involvement of their grandparents in their lives in a measurable and quantifiable way, even if the exact causes are controversial.

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Parental Alienation Leads to Severing Grandchild/Grandparent Bonds

If grandchildren can benefit from grandparental involvement in their lives, this implies that these relationships should be preserved despite parental separation and divorce. It is not just a “social nicety” to do so, it is fundamental to the well-being of the grandchildren.

Unfortunately, some research shows that 1/4 of children of divorce suffer from parental alienation syndrome. Children alienated from a parent not only suffer the loss or impairment of that parental relationship, but also tend to suffer the loss or impairment of all family relationships on that parent’s side. This means grandparent/grandchild relationships are also negatively impacted. Government policies in many locations fail to recognize the importance of preserving these relationships and often wrongly help alienating parents cut some or all of their children’s grandparents out of their lives, usually to the children’s detriment.

(from Involved Grandparenting and Child Well-being)

Under the law in England and Wales, Grandparents have no legal rights over grandchildren. A study in 2003 of 44 families involved in divorce proceedings concluded that grandparent-grandchild contact post divorce did not have an ‘essential purpose or fundamental importance’ which would justify an enhanced legal status for grandparents. In the current national study, however, grandparent involvement was strongly associated with reduced adjustment difficulties in all family types but particularly so amongst adolescents from non-intact families.

Survival Rates in Context of Grandmother/Grandchild Relationships

The study Sharon Begley cites involved University of Cambridge researchers examining birth and death records involving seven population groups spread across the world (Japan, Germany, England, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Malawi and Canada) from the 17th century to present time. They conclude that the survival rates of grandchildren increase when a genetically more related grandmother is present in their lives.

The authors (Molly Fox, Rebecca Sear, Jan Beise, Gillian Ragsdale, Eckart Voland, and Leslie A. Knapp) express the concept of a level of genetic relatedness by the X chromosome being donated from the grandparent via their child to their grandchild. X-relatedness can range from 50% for paternal grandmothers to granddaughters to 0% for paternal grandmothers to grandsons. According to this reasoning, which is supported by the analyzed data, paternal grandmothers help improve their granddaughters survival rates the most because they are 50% related but maternal grandmothers help improve their grandsons’ survival rates more as they at 25% X-related.

(from The importance of grandmothers in the lives of their grandchildren)

The research was carried out by a re-evaluation of the birth and death records of seven populations in Asia, North America, Europe and Africa who had lived in different periods dating back to the 17th century.

By specifically looking at child mortality in the first three years of life it was found that a grandmothers’ effect on grandchildren varies according to their X-chromosome relatedness.

It was discovered that the effect of a grandmother’s presence on grandchild survivorship corresponds relatively with her X-relatedness to the grandchild, which is not equivalent in boys and girls.

Specifically, maternal grandmothers have 25% X relatedness with both grandsons and granddaughters and both grandchildren are equally likely to inherit any one of her X-linked genes.

Contrastingly, paternal grandmothers will pass on one of her X chromosomes to their granddaughters (making them 50% X-related) but she will not pass this chromosome on to her grandson (making them 0% X-related).

Molly Fox, Gates Cambridge Scholar at the Department of Biological Anthropology said : “We suggest that maternal and paternal grandmothers have different incentive to invest in grandsons and granddaughters, due to differences in genetic relatedness.

“The presence of a paternal grandmother in all seven of the populations had a harmful effect on grandsons because her presence was linked with an increase in mortality.

“Meanwhile, in six out of seven populations, the paternal grandmother’s presence in her granddaughter’s early life had a beneficial effect in terms of the risk of mortality. This difference between paternal grandsons and granddaughters would explain a lot of the inconsistencies in previous studies, where the sex of the grandchild was not considered.

“We’ve only looked at child mortality, and the mechanism itself remains mysterious. Other studies have given evidence against conscious favouritism towards one grandchild or another”.

X-Relatedness Only Accounts for Part of Genetic Relationship

The improvement involved paternal grandmothers somehow convey on granddaughters’ survival rates is the strongest correlation found in the study. Oddly, there is a far weaker correlation showing that paternal grandmothers actually slightly worsen the survival rates for paternal grandmothers of grandsons. According to the study, maternal grandmothers benefit grandchildren of both genders, but not to the degree of the benefit from the paternal grandmother/granddaughter relationship.

One of the criticisms of this study is that X-relatedness only accounts for part of the genetic relationship between grandmothers and grandchildren and that it seems unlikely to some that such a difference could account on its own for the differing statistical outcomes. When other genes are included, a rough estimate of total genetic relatedness is as follows:

Genetic Relatedness Paternal grandmother Maternal grandmother
Grandson 23% 25%
Granddaughter 31% 25%

Causes for Survival Benefits Unknown

Grandma often being beneficial to grandkids is an important observation in an era of hateful divorces and parental alienation ruining the opportunities for children to get to know their grandparents. However, it would be nice to know the causes. This particular study examined the correlation between X-relatedness, grandmother involvement, gender, and survival rates, but cannot explain the causes.

Some of the speculative explanations include physical similarities and pheromones affecting the interaction between grandmothers and grandchildren. Another idea is that epigenetic transmission somehow helps fine-tune the grandchild’s biology to the environment. But for really solid answers as to the causes, it is likely that historical statistics simply will not provide the answers.

Grandpa Can Help, Too

Researchers at Oxford University looked into the connection between the well-being of grandchildren and the amount of contact they have with their grandparents of both genders by surveying and interviewing children themselves. They found adolescent children whose grandparents are involved in their lives weather the storms of family crises such as parental separation and divorce better than those children lacking involved grandparents.

(from Grandma and grandpa are good for children)

The research surveyed questionnaires from 1,596 children, aged between 11-16 from across England and Wales, and researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 40 children from a range of backgrounds. Another key finding of the research was that almost a third of maternal grandmothers provided regular care-taking for their grandchildren, with 40 per cent providing occasional help with childcare.

The survey reveals that grandparents often have more time than working parents to support young people in activities and are well placed to talk to their grandchildren about any problems the young people may be experiencing. They were also found to be involved in helping to solve the young people’s problems, as well as talking with them about plans for their future.

Professor Buchanan said: ‘We were surprised by the huge amount of informal caring that the grandparents were doing and how in some cases they were filling the parenting gap for hard working parents. Most adolescents really welcomed this relationship. What was especially interesting was the links we found between ‘involved grandparents’ and adolescent well-being. Closeness was not enough: only grandparents who got stuck in and did things with their grandchildren had this positive impact on their grandchildren.’

Co-investigator Dr Eirini Flouri, from the Institute of Education, said: ‘We found that close relationships between grandparents and grandchildren buffered the effects of adverse life events, such as parental separation, because it calmed the children down. This suggests future investigations should pay more attention to the role of grandparents in developing resilience in young people.’

This study also shows that at times of family breakdown and separation, many grandparents played an important role in bringing stability to their grandchildren. Grandparents were also found to be important in times of family adversity and appeared to help the whole family buffer the difficulties. The researchers conclude that given the grandparents’ role is almost invisible in family policy in the UK, the government needs to rethink the policy implications of this largely positive role and provide more support for the important intergenerational relationships.

Children “Better Adjusted” Via Involvement of Grandparents

Profession Buchanan has teamed up with other researchers on further investigation of the benefits of grandparental involvement in children’s lives. They have found that higher levels of grandparental involvement in general significantly reduce the level of emotional and behavioral problems in teenagers from varying family backgrounds including two-parent biological families, step-families, and single parent families. However, the benefits were significantly higher for children living outside of two-parent biological families.

(from Grandparenting and Adolescent Adjustment in Two-Parent Biological, Lone-Parent, and Step-Families)

Although the current study cannot determine causal implications, these findings may indicate that grandchildren in lone-parent and step- families are the chief beneficiaries of grandparent contact and that this contact is an important protective resource in their lives. Ruiz and Silverstein (2007) suggest that in the face of single parenthood and the new challenges imposed by forming a stepfamily, as well as developmental challenges faced by adolescents, grandparents may serve as functional substitutes in lessening adolescent distress. These findings are in line with those of Werner and Smith (1982) who identified close contact with a grandparent as one of a number of protective factors for children born at risk for maladjustment, in part because of the continuity in caregiving that such a relationship provides during multiple transitions (see also Kennedy & Kennedy, 1993). Studies also showed that grandparents were important confidants for young people in times of distress, such as parental separation and divorce, as well as constructing a new family. In addition, they functioned as monitors of parental behaviors (e.g., Dunn & Deater-Deckard, 2001; Kennedy & Kennedy, 1993).

Grandparents were identified as a potential resource and as potentially moderating the negative influence of parental separation and multiple family transitions (Cherlin, Chase-Lansdale, & McRae, 1998; Hetherington, Bridges, & Insabella, 1998; Ruiz & Silverstein, 2007). The current study emphasizes the need to examine adolescents’ adjustment and well-being from a social ecological perspective, taking into account not only their characteristics and those of their immediate family characteristics but also factors outside the family. Practitioners should consider working across generations to strengthen the entire family. Grandparents represent important resources to stabilizing the changing ground of family life that arises in separated and lone-parent families. This is especially important as research shows that the emotional benefits of grandparent contact may persist into adulthood (Ruiz & Silverstein, 2007). Currently, grandparents potential contribution to children’s and adolescents’ development is largely unacknowledged by professionals working with children and adolescents (Lussier et al., 2002). Public institutions, such as schools and welfare services, need to recognize grandparents as a potentially important source for support in adolescents’ lives in general, but in particular, for those increasing numbers of adolescents going through a family transition.

Grandparents May Help by Providing Caring Continuity

The typically more stable family structure of the grandparents may help children adjust to the changes in the structure of their immediate family as parents separate, divorce, associate with new partners, and remarry.

Grandparents can also often provide insight into parental behaviors that may benefit the children. For instance, they can help explain that mother and father are not getting along well but that this isn’t the fault of the children. Often warring parents may be too busy fighting with each other to point this out to their children. The children often suffer guilt from delusions that they are somehow responsible for the conflicts.

Grandparents also often help families being sucked dry by the courts and lawyers to simply have adequate resources to survive. They are less often pulled into the divorce conflict at a high level of engagement than the parents.

Anecdotally, it appears that when grandparents are sucked into the divorce conflict by the parents, they are often only seriously harmed when a blaming mentally ill parent tries to harm them. These are the same kinds of parents who are prone to parental alienation against their children and their other parent. Children of such alienating parents might derive more than typical benefit from continued and frequent interaction with their grandparents and extended families. It may help prevent full-blown parental alienation syndrome as well as provide more people for the conflict-enmeshed children to turn to for emotional support.

Children benefit from having multiple close relationships with family members on both sides of their family. The more people who love them and interact with them in a constructive fashion, the better off they are. Alienating parents should be reminded of this frequently. If they truly love their children, they should be able to put aside some of their animosity and keep their children’s grandparents involved in their lives.

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Further Reading

1 in 4 Children of Divorce Suffer Parental Alienation Syndrome

Parental Alienation

Involved Grandparenting and Child Well-being

The importance of grandmothers in the lives of their grandchildren

Grandparenting and Adolescent Adjustment in Two-Parent Biological, Lone-Parent, and Step-Families

Oxford University: Professor Ann Buchanan

Grandma plays favourites: X-chromosome relatedness and sex-specific childhood mortality

Grandma and grandpa are good for children

The importance of grandmothers in the lives of their grandchildren

Grandma Plays Favourites: X-Chromosome Relatedness and Sex-specific Childhood Mortality – Proceedings of the Royal Society B

Grandma plays favourites

Charlie Rose on Sharon Begley

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  1. Amanda
    February 10th, 2013 at 13:08 | #1

    Go to
    Alienated Grandparents Anonymous Incorporated

  2. Suzanne
    April 12th, 2013 at 03:14 | #2

    Adult children that do not allow the grandparents access to their children are setting themselves up for pain in the future. One day the Grandchild will seek out the grandparent and will be made aware of why they did not have that Grandparent in their life. The anger that older child feels will be pointed to their parents. If the child discovers the alienation in their teen years when hormones run hot and cold frm minute to minute the wrath will be aimed at the parents that kept their grandparents out of their lives. This can often lead to the commonly known syndrome that is usually given to the father in a divorce called the “White Knight Syndrome”. The teens will idolize the Grandparents that they did not get to know so many years back. The vindictive parent will then possibly suffer what they caused their own parents to suffer. This only adds to the disintegration of the family as we know it today.

  3. August 15th, 2014 at 11:24 | #3

    sadly these parents are not thinking about the children’s best interest. NO ONE loves you like grandma loves you.

  4. November 17th, 2014 at 10:44 | #4

    We here at Family Access-Fighting for Children’s Rights are working in each state for laws in that grandchildren should have access to their grandparents. Please join us. We need your help!

  5. Margaret Townson
    February 24th, 2016 at 20:45 | #5

    I have been alienated from my granddaughters by my daughter and her husband due to me having been in mental hospital in the past suffering from stress. She has said she cannot allow me to c them unless I go on more medication, which I don’t need, as it is not fair on the girls.
    The girls, aged 5 and 3 r always asking about me but only her husbands mother gets to c them, all day Tuesday. I was put on an injection by the mental health when my daughter was a small child and this alienated me from her. This was done by my husband.
    He has been invited over without me on numerous occasions and accepted the invitation.
    It’s v upsetting because I had a lovely relationship with them, always buying them things also.

  6. Tk
    June 6th, 2021 at 04:59 | #6

    daughter_in_law and I had a disagreement that was minor about seeing the grandkids during the covid scare. Her wishes were strict and we rejected her terms and stated nicely we would wait for the vaccine. Thought all was ok, however it wasn’t. I got a call from granddaughter and she wanted to know why I was mean to her mother. It was the first call I got from her ever. I heard the mother coaching her on the details. I got upset at both. I apologized to granddaughter but not her mother for speaking so negative of me in front of both granddaughters. We are not speaking at all. The family is not the same and will never be the same. I am convinced daughter in law made a bad mistake getting her children involved in such a minor disagreement with me. I don’t feel comfortable with my son’s family at all. The only phrase that set her off was, “for me to bow to your command I must do all that?” That phrase ruined a relationship with the whole family.
    What is next?

  1. January 16th, 2010 at 04:24 | #1
  2. October 5th, 2010 at 08:50 | #2

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