Being a grandparent, for most people, is pure joy—any time spent with beloved grandchildren is truly a positive experience. But this isn’t always the case when one is a step-grandparent to either a child’s stepchildren or a new spouse’s grandchildren.
The lingering trauma of your child’s divorce can dull your enthusiasm for developing close, warm relationships with your new son- or daughter-in-law and his or her children, or you may be indifferent to your new spouse’s grandchildren. Your step-grandchildren may also be at an age at which they are more interested in spending time with friends than getting to know you. These and other factors can get in the way of creating a happy, new stepfamily.
Chances are good that most grandparents will also become step-grandparents, whether they’re up for the challenge or not, given the reality that there are more stepfamilies in the United States than original intact families. In fact, half of the country’s 60 million children under 13 live with one biological parent and that parent’s current partner.
As mature, responsible adults, you have the job of laying the groundwork for the new family by modeling respect and compassion. Here are a few tips to make your new role as joyful as possible:
1. Modify your expectations.
When remarriage occurs, too many family members believe they must love each other in order to have a happy family. But love is an emotion that can’t be forced. If you love your step-grandchildren, that’s wonderful, but if you don’t, that’s also acceptable, as long as you offer them kindness, compassion, and respect. No more and no less should be expected of you. When you remove expectations that you must love each other, it is easier just to be genuinely nice to each other. This can lead, in time, to love.
2. Be considerate.
There can be real disparities between stepsiblings. Some receive more birthday and holiday gifts from wealthier relatives than others do. Inadvertently, grandparents can exacerbate these differences by favoring their biological grandchildren and lavishing them with expensive gifts while ignoring step-grandchildren. This can cause discord among stepsiblings, and can hurt the feelings of young step-grandchildren who may not understand the difference in the relationship between their various grandparents. You don’t have to buy gifts of equal value for all your grandchildren and step-grandchildren, but you do have to get gifts for all.
3. Don’t take things personally.
If your efforts to build a positive relationship with step-grandchildren are rebuffed, you’ll naturally feel hurt. Understand that the children may reject your attention and warmth for reasons that have nothing to do with you as a person. Perhaps they feel that since they already have two sets of grandparents, they don’t need a third one in their lives, no matter how nice they are. Or unconsciously they may feel a need to maintain emotional distance from you to avoid feeling disloyal to their biological relatives. These feelings can take a long time to overcome, and may not change, despite your best efforts. Whatever the case, you need to accept things as they are for your own emotional welfare, and not take a child’s initial rejection as a personal attack.
4. Create new holiday traditions.
Holidays can be particularly painful for stepfamily members who mourn the distance of certain relatives and the traditions they created for the family. So start new traditions by inviting family members to a holiday they’ve never celebrated before, or consider hosting a Thanksgiving celebration, for example, on a day when everyone in the stepfamily can attend. This will give you more freedom and limit stress.
5. Choose to be hopeful.
Many members of stepfamilies wonder if it’s possible to ever be a happy, cohesive group. It most certainly is. Some stepfamilies are very fortunate; everyone cooperates and gets along nicely. For others, achieving this goal is harder. Members must work hard to set aside feelings of anger, bitterness, and resentment in order to be kind and considerate to each other. Just do the best you can, and take comfort in knowing that is all anyone can expect of you. It is more than enough.
Rachelle Katz, Ed.D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. Author of The Happy Stepmother: Stay Sane, Empower Yourself, Thrive in Your New Family, she leads monthly stepmother support groups, and is a stepmother coach. She has one stepdaughter.