The bond between a grandparent and grandchild can be incredibly strong. There is something special about that skipped-generation relationship. But sometimes family conflict between parents and grandparents can keep grandchildren from seeing their grandparents. This was apparently the situation in a recent Alabama grandparent visitation court case that rose all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case involved an Alabama family, in which paternal grandparents, parents and two granddaughters spent time together frequently until a failed business venture between father and grandfather came between them. The parents eventually cut off all contact between their daughters and the paternal grandparents. The grandparents were left heartbroken — resorting to posting signs on the road and attending public events where they knew their two teenaged granddaughters would be present. Eventually, they went to court to ask for regularly scheduled time with their granddaughters, and in 2008 a judge granted them visitation.
But a state appeals court and later the Alabama State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parents. The grandparents appealed to the highest court in the land, seeking a ruling on whether it violated constitutional due process to use the “harm standard” in determining these cases, but the U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to hear the case with no comment.
Grandparents’ legal rights vary from state to state. The harm standard is used in as many as 18 states, requiring grandparents to prove that grandchildren will be harmed if they do not have a relationship with grandchildren, or perhaps that the parents are unfit.
Approximately 19 other state laws use the “best interest standard.” In those states, the grandparent must prove that it is in the best interest of the child to have a relationship with them. It is much harder to prove harm than to convince the court it is in the best interest of a child to see grandparents.
It makes me so sad to hear of these cases, primarily because the children are the ones who are in the middle and stand the most to lose. Conflicts between parents and grandparents are at the root of these cases and the children become pawns in the struggle. So how can families avoid getting to this point? Here are my suggestions:
1. Remember: It’s about the child. Remain clear that everyone involved wants the child to be happy and healthy. The child should be the focus — not the unwitting weapon to use against other family members.
2. Grandparents: Respect boundaries that parents set in regard to their children’s time, gifts, activities, topics of conversation, clothing, discipline and other rules. Just have the expectation that you will not agree on everything, because you won’t. And that’s OK. Accept it.
3. Parents: Know that your children can benefit greatly from relationships across generations. Every child does better in life with more loving adult relationships and supportive attention. Many grandparents also provide financial assistance to grandkids, such as helping support their education. They give a child a sense of family history and roots. Weigh these things when you consider a fight. Do you really want your kids to suffer because you don’t get along with your parents?
4. Deal with the old demons. You know — the issues from 20 or 30 years ago that had nothing to do with these children yet somehow keep creeping into your thoughts and interactions. The things that build up and bite you when you least expect them. Become fully aware of them. Find a way to accept the past is the past or work them out with your family members now. Don’t let old baggage hurt the children.
5. Keep talking – no matter what. When family relationships are strained, remember that these things often blow over or heal with time. You can still have cordial family time together for the sake of the children, even if it’s less frequent, certain subjects are taboo, or parents and grandparents agree to disagree. Let go and move on as a joint support system for the children. Later in life, you’ll be glad you did and that you provided a role model for the children on how to treat their parents.
6. Listen to the children. What do the children want in this situation? Even little ones have opinions. Let them have their say.
7. If all else fails, avoid going to court. Everyone loses. Instead, try new ways to form agreements. Family counseling may be helpful, or engage a respected family friend, faith community leader or a trained family mediator to help you. Decide on boundaries, time together and even details like what topics of conversation to stick to among the generations. It’s not about the ideal agreement – it’s about what you can live with for the sake of the children.